KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It seems the calendar’s turn to August may have ushered in a new first-half mentality in Kansas City.
Four days after yet another lackadaisical first 45 minutes forced them to settle for one more last-gasp point, Sporting Kansas City made sure July’s mistakes didn’t continue to haunt them against Real Salt Lake.
Kansas City attacked RSL from the moment the opening whistle blew Wednesday night at Livestrong Sporting Park, using relentless pressure on the ball to snatch two first-half goals then bravely weathering the visitor’s surge in the second half to bank a 2-0 victory.
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“We were all upset that we were giving up stupid things in the beginning [of games],” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. “We talked about it after last game, and we were all prepared today from the first whistle.”
With a solid start came another result and one that was rarely in doubt. But this time Sporting (7-6-9) collected the full three points that have eluded them at times in the last month.
By knocking off Salt Lake, Kansas City extended their club-record unbeaten streak to 14 games and moved into a tie for third place in the Eastern Conference despite playing down a man for most of the second half after Roger Espinoza was sent off.
And all because they picked up right where they left off on Saturday against the Revolution instead of coming out tentatively and allowing the visitors to dictate the pace.
“This was probably the best 90-minute performance that we’ve played all year,” manager Peter Vermes said. “From the opening whistle... it just showed the commitment of the guys right off the bat. We started from where we left off in the last game from where we were pushing.”
Sporting frustrated RSL’s intricate passing game with on-ball pressure high up the field that emanated from midfielders Graham Zusi, Jeferson and Espinoza. It was that pressure that led to Kansas City’s first goal.
Espinoza picked up the first tally of the game and his first of the season in the 29th minute when he stole the ball at the top of the penalty area, split two defenders then charged into the box and smashed a shot past Nick Rimando at the near post.
Teal Bunbury, who now has two goals in two games, followed that up with another poacher’s goal five minutes later when Kei Kamara’s header from Matt Besler’s long throw was saved by Rimando but not cleared. Bunbury was there to clean up the rebound, putting his foot through the ball, off Rimando’s hands and in.
“I wasn’t going to try to place it or anything like that,” Bunbury said. “It was on my left foot.”
But after leading Kansas City’s efforts to put RSL under pressure, Espinoza’s aggression got the best of him when he was sent off in the 56th minute for a scything tackle from behind on Kyle Beckerman.
Even down a man, Sporting stayed resolute, registering their fifth shutout this season by virtue of Seth Sinovic’s clearance off the line and some timely saves by Nielsen.
“In the first half, I don’t think they had a shot on target,” Nielsen said. “When we went a man down, we still played with discipline and were very aggressive. We played hard but fair.”
And for just the second time in six games, Kansas City played like that from the very start. This time there were no early deficits to make up and no sloppy first-half goals conceded.
Just three points and a high-quality opponent left frustrated by their pressure and cohesion.
“Make no mistake, this was a very good team that we played tonight,” Vermes said. “They are a very good team, and I believe they had a very difficult time with us.”