Despite a frigid night at Sporting Park, it didn't take long for Sporting Kansas City to catch fire in a crucial Eastern Conference matchup with D.C. United Friday.
An early Dom Dwyer goal and an anchored defense proved to be enough for Sporting Kansas City to preserve its place in the Supporter's Shield race with a 1-0 shutout in front of an 18,932-sellout crowd in the team's final regular season MLS home match.
"That was a massive result for us," head coach Peter Vermes said after the match. "It's not easy playing anyone in this league, and when you go up against a team that has absolutely nothing to lose at this time of the year, they're never easy games. There's no doubt that I'll admit that maybe it wasn't one of our best performances of the year, but at the end of the day we found a way how to win that game, get three points, and continue to keep the pressure on the other teams."
Dwyer was gifted the early goal in the 7th minute off a D.C. United turnover in the midfield. United's Jared Jeffrey looked to pass the ball back to Perry Kitchen. Kitchen, however, backpedaled and gave room for Dwyer to close in and use a concentrated first touch to dribble to the side of goalkeeper Bill Hamid before netting home the early goal.
"It was a very good defensive play," Dwyer said in the postgame press conference. "We've been working on high pressing. [Peterson] Joseph did a great job pressuring the center back, and I knew it was my job to then close the keeper, and I thought I'd take a chance."
Sporting Kansas City's chances accumulated from there, but noise wasn't made until the 16th minute when United's Chris Pontius chipped a ball to midfielder Jared Jeffrey for a one-on-one with Jimmy Nielsen. Jeffrey hesitated, waiting for Nielsen to make a move, but the veteran goalkeeper held his ground long enough to block an attempted shot between his legs.
"I'm not sure exactly what happened," Nielsen said in regards to the Pontius, Jeffrey play. "It came [from] a through ball, and one against one; in that situation you just got to stand out as long as possible, and let the guy make the move. He tried to put the ball through my legs, but lucky for me I got down and blocked it."
Jeffrey's look was the only shot-on-goal attempt for D.C. United in the first half, and by the final whistle, proved to be their most threatening play in a frustrating performance that saw four yellow cards, including one to Kitchen who'll have to sit out the club's final match due to accumulation.
However, despite controlling game throughout, Sporting Kansas City was unable to find a groove in the second half, as both teams played what several Sporting Kansas City players echoed as a sloppy half en route to the shutout victory.
"Tonight was not a pretty game of soccer," defender Matt Besler said after the game. "There were a few instances where we got some things together, but for the most part it was a battle - it was a grind - the ball was lively today with the rain and the pitch. I thought we did a good job reacting and not giving up a goal. That's what it's all about."
With the victory, Sporting Kansas City (16-10-7) reclaims both first-place in the Eastern Conference and in the Supporter's Shield race heading into the busy MLS weekend. The win also guarantees the club home field advantage for the Conference Semifinals that are tentatively scheduled for Nov. 2-3 (Leg 1) and Nov. 6-7 (Leg 2), the latter of which being the home match for Vermes' squad.
Sporting Kansas City will return to action this Wednesday, Oct. 23, in CONCACAF Champions League play against Club Olimpia at Sporting Park. The team needs only a draw to get into the knockout stage, though a victory will put the squad in a better position with the knockout seeding.