Sporting Kansas City Defeats Philadelphia, Clinches Conference Title
With the win, Sporting KC captured the Eastern Conference regular season title for the second consecutive year. It is the fifth division/conference crown overall, but it's the first time in franchise history the team has won consecutive titles.
In the locker room after the game, Sporting KC captain Jimmy Nielsen told us it wasn't a typical game. Nielsen said:
It was a weird game to play, with all the respect for Philadelphia, but they were all over the place. I don’t want to say they were unorganized, but you could feel they didn’t have anything to play for they risked it a little bit more and were maybe a little more lousy on their defending. It was a very, very weird game to play.
Philadelphia's Amobi Okugo seemed to be the main villain for the evening, getting booked in the third minute for a foul on defender Seth Sinovic.
I may be biased, but that may have been one of the few calls the ref got right. That and a good no-call on a possible handball in the box in the 20th minute, but that was about it.
Sporting midfielder Paulo Nagamura, who previously had seemed to be impervious to injury, came off in the 33rd minute for Jacob Peterson. It proved to be a fortuitous substitution.
Peterson had an almost immediate impact. Seven minutes after entering the match, Peterson opened the scoring for the home team.
How far will Sporting KC go in the MLS Playoffs?
Kei Kamara started the break on the left wing near the midfield stripe. Kamara passed it inside to Sapong near the top of the penalty area. Sapong's return pass was one-timed by Kamara into the path of Peterson, who only had to make contact to put the ball in the back of the net past Zac MacMath.
The goal was Peterson's fourth of the season, with assists going to Kamara, his seventh, and Sapong, his second.
Former USMNT star Alexi Lalas had this reaction via Twitter:
Lalas (@AlexiLalas) October 25, 2012
Sporting KC almost doubled its lead just before halftime. Graham Zusi had a couple of shots at the end of stoppage time that were only kept out of the net by superb saves by MacMath.
Philadelphia came out with a greater sense of urgency in the second half and it didn't take very long before it paid dividends.
Eight minutes after the break, Union midfielder Danny Cruz was awarded a penalty kick after he was brought down in the box by Sporting defender Matt Besler.
Michael Farfan stepped up to take the penalty. Farfan's initial shot was saved by Nielsen, but Antoine Hoppenot beat everyone else to the rebound and slotted it home.
During the postgame press conference, Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes was asked about the goal, which ended Nielsen's attempt to tie Tony Meola's club record for shutouts in a single season. Vermes said:
Unfortunately for [Nielsen], he made a great save. But it’s actually a great learning moment for us because we weren’t ready for the rebound. We were second to the ball. Hoppenot did a great job anticipating the play and got there and beat us to it so from that point of view it’s going to be a great learning lesson.
The game stayed level until eight minutes from full time. Kamara picked up the ball near the midfield stripe and took on several Philadelphia defenders, running through four of them. With Chance Myers out wide on the right, Kamara threaded an inch-perfect pass to Sapong, who buried it in the back of the net.
After Sporting KC took the lead, the game seemed to get more physical by the minute, all leading to the moment when I thought Philadelphia should have finished with 10 men.
In the 89th minute, Philadelphia's Keon Daniel took a free kick from about 40 yards out. As Nielsen went out to punch the ball away, Okugo jumped into him, leading with his left elbow and leveling the Danish goalkeeper. Several players then started shoving each other.
On the broadcast, when there was no card given, you could see the incredulous look on Nielsen's face. I'm sure, though, the director wishes he hadn't taken that view at that moment. You could read Nielsen's lips as he dropped an f-bomb when asking the ref if he was kidding.
With the win, Sporting Kansas City locks up the top seed in the Eastern Conference and home-field advantage through the conference finals. They now await their first playoff opponent: the winner of the one game playoff between the fourth and fifth seeds.
Considering how tightly packed the second through fifth place teams are right now, the potential opponents for Sporting KC could change dramatically between now and Saturday night.
The only thing set in stone is that Sporting KC will host the second leg of their conference semifinal on Wednesday, November 7, probably at 7 p.m. CST.
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