Sporting Kansas City continues to climb out of a hole and now sits three points clear of the sixth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
Sporting Kansas City went into Sunday night’s contest unbeaten in their last four matches. The team knew this would be their toughest task of the five as they took on New York City FC. New York lead the Eastern Conference and is one of the top clubs in the MLS this season.
The match started at a lightning pace, partially due to defensive miscues by both sides. In the eighth minute, Jimmy Medranda sent a cross into the box that Jacob Peterson directed on the face of goal. NYCFC goal keeper Josh Saunders could just get a hand to the ball as he fell backwards; the ball bounced off the post and right to the feet of Benny Feilhaber who tapped it in to give SKC the 1-0 lead.
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The lead was short-lived due to a lackluster pass in the defensive third from Ike Opara in the 14th minute . Opara’s miscue went right to the feet of Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard eventually scored the goal as New York ran down the field with numbers. Luckily, Josh Saunders committed another critical error just two minutes later, allowing SKC to go back in front.
In the 16th minute, Benny Feilhaber swung in a corner that was cleared to Jimmy Medranda outside the 18-yard box. Medranda took a rather weak shot on goal, but Saunders misplayed the ball which bounced just in front of him, and it went off his hands straight into the top of the net.
The match slowed down following the blistering pace of the first 15 minutes, but Sporting kept control, ending up with 67 percent of the possession when all was said and done.
Sporting put the game on ice in the 51st minute when Ike Opara scored his first goal in nearly a year. An extremely high NYCFC clearance was flicked back into the box by Feilhaber, finding its way through many players from each side, and rolling right to Opara. Opara got knocked to the ground, but kept fighting and got back up to slip the ball past Saunders into the net and put SKC up 3-1, where they would finish the match.
Graham Zusi was a late scratch from the SKC line-up after suffering from hamstring tightness during warm-ups. The decision was made as a precaution and Zusi should be available for the next match. Matt Besler, coming off his game-winning goal last week against Columbus as well as multiple appearances for the US Mens National Team in the Copa America tournament, was a substitute for the second straight match, and this time wasn’t subbed on at all.
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When asked about Besler’s absence, manager Peter Vermes mentioned the team’s recent success with the back four of Jimmy Medranda, Lawrence Olum, Ike Opara, and Saad Abdul-Salaam. How long Besler remains on the bench remains to be seen, but being one of the best and highest-paid players on the team, it likely won’t be much longer.
This game was huge for Sporting Kansas City, who are now unbeaten in their last five matches. The team is back in good form and playing like the playoff contender they were expected to be going into the season. Though only first place FC Dallas has played as many games as SKC, they now sit three points clear of the final playoff spot, comfortably in the race for the time being.
Sporting is nine points behind Dallas for first place with 14 matches remaining. With continued strong play like they’ve produced recently, the squad could be competing for first in the West soon. The team hasn’t been in first place since the first month of the season.
Sunday’s match was Sporting’s first of three matches in seven days. They play in Chicago on Wednesday and in Colorado on Saturday. With their recent success, road losses in one or both of their next two matches wouldn’t be devastating but ideally they’d like at least a point in each match.
Sporting Kansas City has played much better soccer and have looked more like a playoff team. No matter how the next two matches end up, SKC has turned the season of disappointment back into a season of success.