So much for a championship hangover.
Fears that Sporting Kansas City might come out flat Saturday in its return to MLS action against D.C. United, only three days after clinching the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, proved unfounded.
Far from enduring a letdown, Sporting KC recaptured first place in the MLS Eastern Conference with a 2-1 home win, moving to 43 points — two ahead of the New York Red Bulls.
“After Wednesday night’s win, this was a mature performance for us tonight,” manager Peter Vermes said. “The performance tonight says so much about the guys, so I am extremely proud of the performance and the commitment.”
Midfielder Graham Zusi, who also had an assist on Sporting KC’s first tally, slipped a shot past D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid through a sliver of space at the near post in the 63rd minute, breaking a 1-1 tie.
With forward Teal Bunbury making a run to the near post and drawing two D.C. United defenders, forward Kei Kamara whipped a cross to an unmarked Zusi at the back post.
Zusi settled the laser cross then cranked the game-winner past Hamid to the delight of the 20,439 in attendance, the second-largest crowd of the season and fourth largest at Livestrong Sporting Park.
“Kei saw me at the far post, and we made eye contact,” Zusi said. “He was definitely trying to hit me with that ball. There’s no question about that. It was an incredible ball. My first touch was good, and I just tried to hit it as hard as I could low.”
Employing it trademark high-pressure style early, Sporting KC, 13-7-4, nearly scored in the 13th minute when Aurelien Collin, returning to the lineup for the first time since suffering two facial fractures July 25 in the MLS All-Star Game, nearly beat Hamid with a second-ball header off a Matt Besler throw-in.
Hamid got a hand to it as it sailed toward the upper right corner, popping the try over the goal.
But on the ensuing corner kick, Bunbury abruptly stepped back on a curling run to gain space in the penalty box from Chris Pontius before burying Zusi’s delivery with a header to the far post past an incensed Hamid.
“Zusi tries the first couple to whip it in near post, so I try to make that run,” Bunbury said. “I was just trying to lose my guy, but it’s pretty rare when I score with my head. I was pretty happy about that.”
It was Bunbury’s fifth goal of the season and the 10th assist for Zusi, who moved into a tie for first in assists in MLS with Houston Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis and D.C. United’s Dwayne De Rosario, who sat out Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury.
Moments later, Kamara blasted a rocket through traffic in the D.C. United box, but the effort sailed a foot wide of the right post.
That right post would vex Sporting KC throughout the first half.
“The past few games, we’ve been unlucky with shots hitting the post, but we got two in there and got the win,” Bunbury said. “That’s huge.”
Off another long throw-in by Besler in the 20th minute, Bunbury centered a ball for Zusi, whose ripped a shot from the top of the 18-yard box that Hamid tipped off the right post.
Zusi also dinged the crossbar in the 53rd minute before finally finding the back of the net.
D.C. United, 11-8-3, scored its goal in the 23rd minute when midfielder Andy Najar, who played alongside Sporting KC’s Roger Espinoza for Honduras at the London Olympics, lobbed a cross into the box, which rookie Nick DeLeon settled (perhaps with help from his right arm).
The ball fell inside goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen’s six-yard box, where DeLeon won a scramble for the ball and tied the game at 1-1 with a sliding goal.
Sporting KC didn’t lose its composure.
“We didn’t put our heads down,” Bunbury said. “We were confident we were going to get a second goal.”
In the 38th minute, Sporting KC nearly retook the lead off another deft first touch from Bunbury, who settled a ball into Paulo Nagamura’s path, this time for a crackling drive that skittered along the ground and dinged off the right post — again.