KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Aurélien Collin looked like he had just survived knockdown, drag-out fight. His lip was split. A large, red welt was forming on the side of his shaved head.
Back in the comfort of Sporting Kansas City’s locker room, Collin recounted the 90 minutes of head-to-head confrontation he spent on Friday night matched up with Steven Lenhart, San Jose’s curly haired, bruiser of a forward.
“Steven is a very big dude, very physical,” Collin said. “At the same time, he’s technical. I think the referees didn’t see a lot of things, but that’s the game, you know. It was a good battle. I’m happy that he didn’t score.”
Collin may have looked worse for wear, but thanks to his work on Lenhart, and a first-half set-piece goal from C.J. Sapong, Kansas City recorded their first victory at Livestrong Sporting Park, defeating the Earthquakes 1-0 in front of a sellout crowd of 18,467.
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And while it wasn’t always pretty, it was certainly effective. With the victory, their second in a row and third overall, Sporting (3-6-4) are now unbeaten in six games in all competitions and have nearly dragged themselves out of the Eastern Conference cellar.
It’s a far cry from where they were a month ago, and much of that success has come down to a defensive revival led, in large part, by the partnership of Collin and Matt Besler at the center-back positions.
On Friday night, Collin played enforcer and Besler cleaned up any messes that cropped up behind the Frenchman as Sporting shut out an Earthquakes squad that had scored 13 goals in their five games. Manager Peter Vermes’ team has now allowed just three goals in its last seven games.
“I think Collin was an absolute beast,” Vermes said. “He matched up with [Lenhart] most of the time. He did an excellent job. It's a man's game and the two of them played like men.”
So did Sapong, who scored the game winner on a Graham Zusi set piece in the 31st minute.
With Bobby Burling draped all over him at the near post, Sapong muscled his way into the path of the Zusi’s curling free kick and stuck his left foot out to redirect the ball past a helpless Jon Busch for his second league goal of the season and fifth overall.
“The refs don’t really see too much that goes on in the trenches, if you will,” Sapong said. “[Burling] was holding onto me. From the second it was hit, I knew I could get my head onto it. He kept pulling me back so I just stuck my foot out. The soccer gods were looking out for me and it went in.”
For the last month or so, it seems the soccer gods have been looking out for Sporting Kansas City as well. The breaks are starting to go their way, and confidence is steadily creeping into the team.
And with a solid defensive scheme in place and the attack starting to come around, Sporting are starting to feel like their season is finally on the right path, even if their record doesn’t completely reflect that.
“In every game, we seem to be getting better,” Zusi said. “I think the whole team is playing with more confidence right now. We just need to continue that, and we’ll get the results.”