COMMERCE CITY, Col. | For the first 45 minutes of Sporting Kansas City’s massive 2-0 victory on Sunday, coach Peter Vermes’ team — at least to the naked eye — certainly did not look like the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Some of that, however, was by design. Sporting was on the road, in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals, facing the defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids. So yes, the goal was to simply get out Dick’s Sporting Goods Park with a result, and Vermes thought the best way to do that was by biding their time until the second half.
“We had to stay locked down defensively,” Vermes said.
And given the way this season has shaped up for Sporting — which literally went from worst-to-first in the conference over the course of four months — is it really a surprise the strategy not only worked, but was a rousing success?
Sporting was outpossessed and outchanced during a physical first half, but after the teams entered halftime scoreless, Colorado — which knew it was under pressure to get a result at home with game two looming at Livestrong Sporting Park – was forced to take some chances in the second half, which, of course, wound up working in Sporting’s favor.
“After the first half, we knew the game would get easier,” said midfielder Roger Espinoza.
“They changed their formation in the second half, and then the game really opened up,” Vermes said. “Our speed really kicked in.”
And fittingly enough, it was one of Sporting’s fastest players — forward Teal Bunbury who buried the Rapids. Midfielder Júlio César set up the go-ahead goal in the 49th minute when he sent a perfect through ball to Bunbury, who turned on the jets (leaving a defender in the dust) and chased the ball down inside the 18-yard box, where he beat Colorado keeper Matt Pickens to the far post to put Sporting up 1-0.
But Bunbury wasn’t done. In the 57th minute, he got behind Colorado defender Tyrone Marshall and was on the verge of getting off another premium shot inside the box. But rather than give up an easy goal, Marshall instead opted to take down Bunbury, which resulted in a red card and a penalty kick. And Bunbury — who waved off a handful of teammates who wanted to take the kick themselves — promptly blasted it past Pickens to give Sporting a two-goal lead.
Colorado did have a chance to score in the 76th minute, when Macoumba Kandji sped past César and raced in unimpeded on goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. But much as he has all season long, Nielsen — who was recently voted the team’s MVP by the media — came up with a huge save to preserve a 2-0 lead that literally might determine whether Sporting makes the conference finals.
Sporting will host the second leg of the semifinals on Wednesday, but since the winner of this round is determined by total goals scored, Sporting could lose by a goal in the next game and still make the playoffs. If Colorado leads by two goals after regulation, the teams would then play two 15-minute overtimes. And if the teams are still tied, then they would then go to penalty kicks.
And considering that a.) Sporting has only lost by more than one goal once this season (when it lost 4-1 on May 14 to Los Angeles) and b.) the significant impact that home crowds have on crucial soccer games, it’s safe to say Sporting is sitting pretty right now.
Just don’t expect Vermes — who should have been riding high, considering his tactical decision to play possum Sunday worked out as well as it possibly could have — to say that.“Right now they’re still the team to beat,” Vermes said of the Rapids. “We haven’t finished anything yet.”
SPORTING KANSAS CITY NOTEBOOK
Sporting forward Omar Bravo did not start Sunday’s game because of a slight groin injury he incurred during Saturday’s practice.
Sporting coach Peter Vermes said Bravo, who experienced tightness in the area and was listed as a sub but did not play, could have fought through it Sunday. But he kept him out in hopes he’d be ready to start the second game of the conference semifinals on Wednesday at Livestrong Sporting Park.
“We didn’t want to risk it,” Vermes said. “We figured the return game on Wednesday would be just as important.”
Rookie forward C.J. Sapong, who made 22 starts during the regular season, started in Bravo’s place.
•One notable name also missing from the starting lineup was team captain Davy Arnaud, who was listed as a sub for the third consecutive game despite Bravo’s injury.
Arnaud, who entered the game in the 69th minute as a sub for Teal Bunbury, has been in and out of the starting lineup since a sports hernia injury sidelined him for a number of weeks earlier this season. Since then, Bravo, midfielder Roger Espinoza and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen – who wore it Sunday night – have all worn the captain’s armband.
But Nielsen, of course, remained deferential to Arnaud.
“We have a great captain in Davy Arnaud,” Nielsen said. “He’s our leader.”
•Sunday’s game was a homecoming of sorts for Espinoza, who was born in Honduras but spent his high school years in the Denver area. Espinoza graduated from Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Co., before attending Yavapai College and Ohio State, where he played college ball.
“Every time I get to come home, I feel like I’m playing high school soccer again,” said Espinoza, who said he had around 13 family members attended the game.
•Houston beat Philadelphia 2-1 Sunday in the first game of the other Eastern Conference semifinal. The winner of the series — which will resume Thursday in Houston — will meet the winner of the Sporting-Colorado series in a winner-take-all conference championship game on Sunday.
•Sunday’s game was Sporting’s first playoff game in three years, which was the longest drought of any playoff team not named Philadelphia (which just started play in 2010).
•Entering the game, the odds of a Sporting result looked pretty good. Sporting had scored in 19 of its previous 20 matches, and had gone 3-1-5 in its previous nine road games.
•When forward Soony Saad came on in the 89th minute, he became the youngest player (19 years old) in franchise history to play in the postseason.