COLUMBUS, Ohio – In a chippy, disjointed match, a header from Sporting Kansas City's Ike Opara made the difference in a 1-0 victory over the Columbus Crew that may have brought an end to Columbus' Cinderella run at the end of the season.
The Crew entered the match as one of the hottest teams in the league, earning nine points from their last three matches, and winning four of five under interim head coach Brian Bliss in a desperate attempt at a postseason push. Kansas City was more comfortable in the standings, and could clinch a playoff berth on the night with help from other Eastern Conference teams.
Kansas City started strong early, and found the eventual game-winner in the 17th minute when a falling Chad Marshall's half-clearance inside the six-yard box rolled back to Graham Zusi in the aftermath of a corner kick. The US international found an unmarked Ike Opara on the far side of goal, and the defender notched his third goal of the season with a close-range header that left Columbus goalkeeper Matt Lampson with no chance at the save.
Columbus fullback Augustin Viana, who appeared to be marking Opara on the play, was prone in the box and holding his head after a challenge when Zusi's cross came in, leaving Opara with feet of space on all sides. Referee Jorge Gonzalez, however, determined that there was no danger to Viana, and did not stop play.
Perhaps the most influential story of the first half was the health of Crew captain and Designated Player Federico Higuain. After an early challenge where the Argentinian went to ground, Higuain spent the remainder of the half struggling around the pitch and holding his hip.
The usually lively forward was reduced mainly to spot-kick duty, and was obviously hampered in his movements. Surprisingly to most, Higuain stayed in the match for all 90 minutes.
The second half yielded very few chances for either side. Both clubs seemed more interested in disrupting play through the midfield than putting together attacking movements, leading to clumsy stretches and squandered opportunities.
In the middle, the hard-working Zusi was largely responsible for SKC's attack and its defense, shutting down Wil Trapp's ability to spread the ball to the Columbus wings.
Kansas City looked to have added a second goal in the 69th minute, when Opara again got his head on a cross from a corner kick. But the defender climbed the back of Viana, and this time his strike was waved off due to the foul.
Despite multiple offensive substitutions and a late flurry of pressure from the Crew, the hosts could not find the tying goal that they so desperately needed, and the 1-0 score lasted for 73 minutes until the final whistle.
The loss leaves the Crew at 41 points, dropping them to eighth in the Eastern Conference, four points behind the final playoff spot, though Columbus have played an extra match and will be idle next weekend. Kansas City rise to 51 points on the season, two points back of conference leaders New York.
MLSsoccer.com Men of the Match
|Rank||Player||What We Saw|
|1||Ike Opara||Justified his inclusion in place of Aurelien Collin with a bruising defensive display and found the net on one header – and very nearly a second – at the other end.|
|2||Graham Zusi||His service proved crucial, but his work rate was even more head-turning. Ran his lungs raw as he spearheaded KC's relentless pressure.|
|3||Lawrence Olum||Quietly effective at the base of the SKC midfield, dictating the tempo and breaking up the Crew's rhythm.|