Now, take a quick second to read that headline again. What it doesn't say is that this game was a huge disappointment and that it's time to start crying out the sky is falling. What it does say is that it's a disappointment, and very little more than that. You know, the generic 'you got your hopes up, but plans fell through for the night' kind of disappointment, but you know you'll get another crack at things again soon.
Having spoken that caveat, it was a disappointment; especially given the curious situation Sporting Kansas City now find themselves in. The game against Columbus Crew, while on the road, was still a game they were expecting to win, and one that, more than anything, they needed to win. Having picked up only 4 points through the first three games, and done so in the fashion with which they did, a game against a middling squad sitting middle of the table, and expected to plummet onward, is a game where you need one point, if not three.
Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes said during Thursday's press conference leading up to the game that Columbus were a team that couldn't be taken lightly and yadda-yadda-yadda; that's all coach speak. What he also said was that Columbus have a nearly inpenetrable defense and that they aren't scared to go the Manchester City route and sit deep in their own half with 7 or 8 men behind the ball. Call Vermes a prophet or a hotline taurot reader, but he was spot on in that assessment. Sporting's previously unstoppable offensive attack was not only held completely under wraps for the first time in 2011, but were done so in impressive, while frustrating, fashion for forwards Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong.
I mean, we knew that breaking down Columbus's stingy defense was going to be a challenge, but they didn't even make it look hard. In fairness, the Sporting forwards made it easy for Crew defenders to snuff them out, if nothing else. Bunbury looked to take it upon himself to create a moment of magic all night, Kamara never found himself in the position inside the box from which he has made a living scoring goals for KC, and Sapong was the man no one knew was on the field most of the night. Obviously we'll have more as the week begins breaking down Columbus's approach and KC's failures, but for now, suffice it to say that Sporting's gameplan was never really going to threaten on this night.
Coming into the game, the stability of the backline was much the worry amongst Sporting fans, and with good reason after the monumental collapse just two weeks ago at Vancouver Whitecaps. But, much to everyone's pleasure, the defense looked much more comfortable having now played three games consecutive with much the same group of players, and having had a full week and a half off since last competition to recover and increase fitness.
If not for a brief lapse in focus on Saturday night, they probably would have had their first clean sheet of the season in the league. And, of course it was the much-maligned Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers that did the damage. Rightback Michael Harrington found himself in a bit of no man' land on a ball played over the top into the center of the 18-yard box, and at the moment where he needed to decide to challenge the ball in the air or tightly mark Rogers, who ended up on the end of a flick forward, he stood flat-footed in the center of the two. By the time the ball had fallen to Rogers' feet, he already had Harrington on the back of his shoulder and he hit it low and hard past KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen.
I find it extremely hard to be critical of Harrington's slight mis-step, though. For much of the game, (about 85-88 minutes worth) the defense, and Harrington especially, did some tidy work in front of Nielsen. Slight mistakes are going to happen, and that's that. Columbus had less than a handful of legitimate scoring opportunities on the night, and they just so happened to take one of them and make good on it. Simple as that. Compared to their performance against Vancouver, the Sporting backline were aces at Crew Stadium.
Perhaps the one area that Sporting didn't just struggle to find anything from, but struggled mightily, is the midfield. With so many defensive-minded players playing in their own half of the field, open space to dribble and pick out the perfect through ball were hard to come by. Sporting midfielder Milos Stojcev, who made a mockery of the Vancouver midfield two weeks ago, just didn't have time to make decisions and the space to spring Kamara and/or Sapong wide on the flanks. Much of the attack flowed directly through the center of the park, thus asking much of Bunbury to be the hero.
Birahim Diop started for the second game in a row as the holding midfielder, and played another acceptable game in that role. While his distribution out of the back isn't the world's greatest (he's a forward now, remember), he does hold and keep possession of the ball well; especially in times of pressure. He's not that ball-winning, head-thumping player that Craig Rocastle and Stephane Auvray were in the spot last year, though, and that's something that only puts added pressure on the defenders.
Couple that with starting centerback Julio Cesar Santos being sent off in the 72nd minute after a second yellow for handball (no matter how incredibly questionable it may have been), Vermes was extremely handcuffed with the moves he could make to bring on more in way of the attack. Let's not even mention the injuries to forwards Ryan Smith and Omar Bravo that made each player unavailable for this game, and Vermes was left with not a single natural, or even comfortable, player to substitute into the sputtering frontline.
When looking back on this night a month and a half from now when Sporting open up Livestrong Sporting Park and begin a colossal set of home games and subsequent attempted climb up the standings, this will be one that no doubt will resonate with great disappointment in the minds of the players. Disappointing, yes. But, little more than that. If you're calling for Vermes' job now, please do yourself a favor - stop.