KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Claudio Bieler's return to the goalscoring fold came just in time for Sporting Kansas City. Now, they're counting on the Designated Player to generate and convert more chances in the Eastern Conference Championship.
Bieler hadn't scored since early September, and not from the run of play since mid-July, when he came on as an 84th-minute substitute in Wednesday's home leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against New England. But he made the move pay off in the 23rd minute of overtime, when his goal capped Sporting's 3-1 victory and gave them the 4-3 aggregate decision.
“He and I had a talk here last week,” manager Peter Vermes said in the postmatch news conference, “and I said to him, 'There's more soccer to play here. You don’t understand yet what the playoff environment is like, but the opportunities are going to come and you’re going to put one away for us or maybe two and they’re going to be big goals.'”
Bieler did that against the Revs, after Benny Feilhaber pounced on goalkeeper Matt Reis' soft throw to Diego Fagundez and sent in a cross that the Argentinian forward finished from close range to put Sporting in an East final that starts Saturday in Houston (2:30 pm ET, NBC, Univision Deportes).
“Him going on and finding his right place on the field during a couple of those situations was huge for us,” Vermes said. “He is what he is: a goalscorer. And it’s great to see him get confidence on that goal because we need him down the stretch here."
On Thursday, Bieler said through a translator that he didn't feel any more pressure to score against the Revs than he has all season.
“No weight,” he said. “There's no weight off of me, because this is a game where I want to score. It has been the last eight or nine games that I haven't played much, but I know that I've played in big games and I've scored big goals, so it doesn't seem any different for me.”
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Bieler hasn't started since Sept. 7, when he converted a penalty kick in a 3-0 win over Columbus. He has dealt with a groin strain since then, but since his return to availability has found himself supplanted in the XI by Dom Dwyer or Teal Bunbury.
“I felt calm,” he said. “I don't get nervous, desperate or anything. I always come and always try to work hard every day. Every day after practice, I stay and work out some more. I keep focus like that. I feel comfort from my family and from God, and that's the most important thing.”
And when he got the chance with Sporting's playoff future on the line, he delivered – bringing the capacity crowd at Sporting Park to its feet in celebration.
“I want to thank every fan that comes out to the games and supports me,” he said. “They've been with me in the good and bad times, and I always want to do something good for them so they can be happy. What better for them than to score a goal in overtime to send the team to the next round?”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.