Matt Besler hopped forward a few steps and launched the ball, two-handed, toward a mass of blue and yellow jerseys jostling for position. But what happened next, even Besler couldn’t have expected.
Oh, Sporting Kansas City has scored a few goals this season off throw-ins. So the fact it resulted in a goal – the game-winner, in fact – in a gigantic 2-1 victory over Columbus on Wednesday at Livestrong Sporting Park wasn’t a complete shock. But the fact it wasn’t a Sporting player who scored the goal was.
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That’s right. Sporting won, and Columbus lost, the biggest game of the season for both teams when Columbus defender Julius James leaped high in the air to clear the ball, only to head a looping ball backward into his own net in the 74th minute.
It was an own goal, one of the luckiest breaks a team can get in soccer. But considering the luck Sporting Kansas City had to start the season, when a number of questionable cards littered a 1-6-3 start, perhaps the fact Sporting received a break in the midst of its worst-to-first Cinderella run was fitting.
And really, there couldn’t have been a better time for it. With only three games left to play, the win improves Sporting’s record to 11-9-11 and moves it into first place in the Eastern Conference – two points ahead of a Houston team that doesn’t play until Saturday – while Columbus, 11-12-8, drops from second to third.
So yes, the stakes were high, and early on both teams played like it during a physical first half that saw Columbus commit seven fouls to Sporting’s six, with Columbus defender Shaun Francis and Sporting defender Matt Besler each being issued yellow cards.
Heck, even the first goal was a result of a foul. And it came in the 15th minute, just moments after Sporting forward C.J. Sapong – who got around Columbus defender Chad Marshall in the box and was prepared to get a shot off from point-black range – was dragged down from a few yards out by Marshall.
Appropriately enough, the referee assessed a foul on Marshall and issued Sporting its fourth penalty kick of the season, which forward Kei Kamara quickly and calmly deposited into the back of the net for a goal that put Sporting ahead 1-0.
The goal was Kamara’s ninth of the season, which put him in a tie for the team lead with forward Omar Bravo. And it seemed particularly crucial given Sporting’s 9-3-2 record (entering the game) when scoring the first goal and Columbus’ 3-11-5 when allowing the first goal.
But odds are just that – odds. You still have to play the game, and Columbus showed why in the 35th minute when midfielder Robbie Rogers found forward Emilio Rentería on the end of a low through ball.
And Rentería, Columbus’ second-leading scorer, knew exactly what to do with it. He was practically alone just outside of the 18-yard box, and he scored his seventh goal of the season by firing the ball past a helpless Jimmy Nielsen to tie the score at 1-1.
It appeared, at least for a while during the second half, that he teams were headed toward a tie. But then came Besler’s throw-in the 74th minute, which led to James’ own goal to put Sporting ahead.
But while that was the biggest play of the game, honorable mention has to go to Sporting’s Nielsen, who somehow got in front of a hard shot from point-blank range by midfielder Andres Mendoza in the 85th minute that turned out to be Columbus’ last good scoring chance.
From there, Sporting’s defense successfully managed to close out an increasingly desperate Columbus squad, and when the final whistle blew, the capacity crowd stood and cheered. They deserved it, after all. In its biggest game of the season, Sporting – which had been in last place just four months ago – had delivered.