For the third time in the last four games, Sporting Kansas City grabbed the lead within the opening 12 minutes.
This time, however, Sporting KC was unable to protect that lead as the Crew found an equalizer in the 91st minute Sunday at Columbus Crew Stadium and claimed a 1-1 draw, pulling within one point of the Houston Dynamo for the fifth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
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“It’s very disappointing, because we had the three (points) and, more importantly, we did enough to get the three,” manager Peter Vermes said. “We had some really good chances to get another (goal) or even a third and really put it away, but ultimately they were able to get one on us late. We had a good performance, but we weren’t able to close it out.”
Forward C.J. Sapong staked Sporting KC, 17-7-8, to that early lead in the 10th minute.
Sapong rifled his initial header off the left post, but the ball came right back to him and Sapong, the reigning MLS rookie of the year, delivered a 1-0 lead by heading the rebound into the right side.
Graham Zusi, who sent the cross Sapong’s way, earned his MLS-leading 15th assist.
It looked as if the tally would stand up for Sporting KC, which owns the best road record in MLS at 8-4-4.
But Columbus salvaged a draw and perhaps its season roughly 15 seconds into second-half stoppage time when Emilio Renteria floated a cross into the box from the right side, finding an unmarked Eddie Gaven at the near post for a snap header that squeezed between Jimmy Nielsen and the right post.
“We should have been better dealing with the cross and denying the cross,” Vermes said. “We could have done a better job clearing the first ball in, which we didn’t clear far enough and allowed that second cross.”
The goal snapped a 392-minute shutout streak for Sporting KC, whose defense seemed bulletproof before Gaven knotted things up.
Nielsen set that tone in the sixth minute when he denied Jairo Arrieta not once but twice on a counterattack.
Nielsen, Sporting KC’s goalkeeper and captain, charged off his line in familiar fashion and stonewalled Arrieta’s initial blast, but the rebound went right back to the Arrieta.
Arrieta had no better luck given the reprieve as Nielsen thwarted that shot with a beautiful kick save. The second rebound was cleared by center back Matt Besler, who had a particularly strong opening half.
Besler cleared an equally dangerous cross in the seventh minute and cleaned up another ball at the near post with a sliding challenge against Julius James in the 28th minute.
While Besler, who was paired with Lawrence Olum for the third straight game, was busy keeping Columbus from scoring, Sporting KC, which extended the club record for points in a season (59) and is now 6-0-4 in its last 10 MLS matches, had its chances to extend that early lead.
During the 20th minute, midfielder Roger Espinoza picked out Sapong with another cross into the box from long range, but goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum, a Blue Valley North graduate, pawed the ball away from the upper right corner.
Gruenebaum would deny Espinoza his first goal of the season in similar fashion in the 83rd minute when Espinoza, who left in the closing minutes with a sprained ankle, drove a 25-yard rocket toward the left side of the Crew’s goal.
Nielsen was every bit Gruenebaum’s equal.
Designated Player Federico Higuain won a free kick at the top of Sporting KC’s penalty box in the 40th minute and rocketed a shot toward the right side that Nielsen popped high, allowing Seth Sinovic, whose foul set up the opportunity, to knock the ball to safety.
During the 64th minute, Arrieta got behind Olum and the Sporting KC defense, which recovered well and forced him into a hurried shot that went straight at Nielsen.
Sporting KC’s best chance to reclaim the lead came in the 97th minute when forward Jacob Peterson, who came on 10 minutes earlier for Zusi, split two Columbus defenders and ran onto the end of a through ball from Olum.
Ultimately, the game remained 1-1 when Peterson’s right-footed roller went right to Gruenebaum.