Warming up minutes before Kansas City’s season open against Chivas USA, CJ Sapong was just trying to soak in his surroundings.
The rookie was preparing to start his first Major League Soccer game, and while Sapong felt ready for the opportunity, he also wanted to be sure he was fully concentrated on the task at hand.
Just under two minutes into the match, that focus paid off in a big way. Sapong created a goal out of nothing, nodding down Luke Sassano’s free kick, picking up the loose ball himself, taking a deft flick to avoid a defender and staying poised long enough to blast the ball inside the near post with his left foot.
It came as such a surprise that any plans for a celebration went right out the window.
“It was dreamlike,” Sapong said in a phone interview. “At that moment, I was just floating. I couldn’t think of anything to do but just run around and scream.”
[inline_node:331465]Behind Sapong’s first career goal and two classy tallies from fellow newcomer Omar Bravo, Sporting Kansas City opened the 2011 season with a 3-2 victory against Chivas USA in the first of 10-straight road games to start the season.
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It wasn’t always pretty, but manager Peter Vermes’ team looked lively from the start and kept the Goats on the back foot for most of the game to walk away with all three points.
“The guys fought. There wasn’t any lack of effort,” Vermes said. “There are a few things that we could have done better, but at the end of the day, we scored goals and we got the points we needed.”
Perhaps no one personified that sentiment more than Sapong, who Vermes has repeatedly praised this preseason for his commitment to the cause.
The rookie striker started in large part because Teal Bunbury remains questionable as he recovers from a dislocated shoulder, but Sapong showed no signs of nervousness, giving the Goats’ defense fits all game with his size and athleticism.
“Fantastic performance [by Sapong],” Vermes said. “Unbelievable work ethic. He’s a tremendous kid. He’s coachable, listens and follows the game plan to a T. He’s only going to get better with the way he’s doing things.”
And while Sapong was enjoying his dream start, Bravo was having one of his own.
Playing in his first game as a much-hyped Designated Player and against the United States’ chapter of the club at which he molded his own legacy, Bravo beat Zach Thornton with two cultured finishes that ended up being the difference.
“In the end, two very timely goals for us,” Vermes said. “It just shows the class that he has as a player.”
Still, it wasn’t all hunky-dory for Sporting. They were fortunate that goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen turned in what has become his typical standout performance in goal, making the routine saves while also contributing a few goal-saving gems. Still, Chivas scored twice from set-piece situations, making the result a little less comfortable and identifying a potential weak spot.
“The thing that I wasn’t happy about was that we kind of let them in with that corner kick,” Vermes said about Chivas USA defender Jimmy Conrad’s first goal. “That’s where we just have to be monsters in the box at that point and just close it out.”
But even though there were some hiccups on the defensive end, Kansas City were able to close out Chivas and take all three points on the road, marking the first leg of their road trip a resounding success.
“I told the guys we have nine [games] left until we get rewarded with our brand-new stadium,” Vermes said. “We have to keep pushing towards that.”