COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Give all the accolades in the world to the offensive mojo that helped push Sporting Kansas City into the postseason, but their defense just might be the key to winning a title.
No, the Colorado Rapids haven’t posed a ton of problems for MLS defenses this season while they’ve dealt with injuries to Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. But the Sporting Kansas City defense shut down just about everything in front of them in a 2-0 win on Sunday, the first time they’ve posted three consecutive shutouts since 2007.
So if the Eastern Conference Semifinal series ends Wednesday at Livestrong Sporting Park with SKC surging onto the doorstep of the MLS Cup, don’t be surprised if the defense gets it done.
“At the end of the day, I had nothing to do today,” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said with a smile. “It was fantastic.”
Nielsen needed to make just one save – a breakaway stop on Rapids forward Macoumba Kandji in the 76th minute – to preserve the shutout, which opened the playoffs much the way SKC ended their regular season. They shut out the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United in the final two games en route to taking the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and made it look fairly easy against a Rapids team that picked apart the Columbus Crew in their wild card match earlier in the week.
The key Sunday was likely the same as it will be in the series finale: shutting down the passing lanes the Rapids love to exploit in the midfield. Right midfielder Brian Mullan struggled to find the space he had against Columbus and left midfielder Sanna Nyassi also wasn’t nearly as effective, neutralized by an SKC midfield and backline that suddenly looked right at home at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
“It was hard for them to play on the ground through the channels,” Sporting head coach Peter Vermes said. “They wound up playing a lot of balls in the air, and not only were we good on the initial ones, we were good on the second balls.”
The Rapids controlled the tempo and looked dangerous for portions of the first 25 minutes, but SKC made the adjustments needed to keep Mullan, Nyassi and fellow midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Wells Thompson from dictating the pace of the game.
“There was a spell in the first half for about five minutes in that right channel, where they winning the ball and having the run of play,” Vermes said. “We talked about how we had to circulate the ball a little quicker and get out of that area, and I thought we did a good job on that as well.”
The Rapids finished with just one shot on goal in the loss.
“They found some spaces in the midfield in the first half, but their strikers didn’t have a lot of space,” defender Aurélien Collin said. “We were very focused defensively, and I think the end result was a good picture of the game. I’m proud of these guys tonight.”