Sporting KC clinches first in East
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- All that Sporting Kansas City needed Wednesday night was a draw against the Philadelphia Union to wrap up its second consecutive Eastern Conference regular-season title.
C.J. Sapong sent the club into the MLS playoffs with a win.
His goal off an assist from Kei Kamara in the 82nd minute ultimately gave Sporting KC a 2-1 victory Wednesday night, pushing the club's unbeaten streak to 12 games and giving it a massive wave of momentum as it chases its first MLS Cup title since 2000.
"It's a totally new season coming up," Sapong said.
Antoine Hoppenot scored an equalizer early in the second half for the Union (10-17-6), but Sapong answered when Kamara found him open on the wing late in the game. Sapong's shot past Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath found the back of the net for his ninth goal of the year.
"We knew it would be a very difficult match today. There wasn't much for them to lose," Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. "The important thing is that we came out to play."
Jacob Peterson had the other goal after entering the game as a first-half injury substitute for Sporting KC (18-7-9). Its franchise-record point total of 63 is six clear of second-place D.C. United, which has one game remaining in the regular season this weekend.
Sporting KC opens the two-leg conference semifinals on the road Nov. 3 or 4 against an opponent yet to be determined. The return match is Nov. 7 at Livestrong Sporting Park.
"We know a whole new season starts," Vermes said, "and it's a clean slate, and it's not going to be easy. I think right now we're ready for it."
Peterson came on as a substitute when Paulo Nagamura had to limp off with a sprained left ankle in the 33rd minute. He got his chance to make an impact in the 40th, when Sapong swung a pass to Kamara on the wing, and he pushed the ball ahead to Peterson the breakaway.
Peterson outran the Union's Carlos Valdes to reach it first, and then ripped a shot just past the outstretched hands of MacMath to give Sporting KC a 1-0 lead.
It was Peterson's career-high fourth goal of the year.
Sporting KC had a chance to add to its lead in the final minute of first-half stoppage time when Sapong set up Graham Zusi in front of the net. The U.S. national team member sent a shot at MacMath that he saved in self-defense, and then another on the rebound that he also saved.
The Union attacked early in the second half, and Matt Besler was called for a foul on Danny Cruz in the penalty area. Michael Farfan took the shot and Jimmy Nielsen made a sprawling save to his left before Hoppenot -- a second-half substitute -- drove home the rebound for the tying goal.
Hoppenot's fourth of the year was only the 27th that Sporting KC allowed in 34 games this season, but it proved to be a costly one for Nielsen. The goalkeeper was less than a half away from matching Tony Meola's MLS and club record with 16 shutouts set during the 2000 season.
"He'll tell you that the number-one thing is htat we won," Sporting KC defender Matt Besler said. "We'll all replay that one in our minds a little bit, but it's not the important thing."
The important thing is that Sporting KC is the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The club will begin pursuit of another title in a couple weeks, grateful it won't have to worry about pesky Philadelphia. The Union pounded Sporting KC 4-0 on June 23, the only time outside an exhibition game against Montpellier-Herault SC that an opponent scored two or more goals.
Sporting KC rebounded to beat Philadelphia 2-0 in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
"We expect to be here," Besler said. "It's a feeling we expect. It's a big accomplishment to be here two years in a row, but we want more than this."