It appears Sporting Kansas City may be hitting their best form of the season at just the right time.
In front of a record crowd of 21,010 at Livestrong Sporting Park in what was essentially a must-win for the home side, Kansas City was able to take down the Chicago Fire 2-0, with an all-around dominating performance that helped Sporting KC clinch a playoff berth for the second straight season.
Zusi scored in the 11th minute of play as well as in stoppage time, notching his fourth and fifth goals of the 2012 MLS regular season, keeping Sporting Kansas City at the top of the Eastern Conference standings with 58 points.
Collecting all three points is huge for Sporting KC, as the Chicago Fire only trailed Kansas City by a meager two points coming into Friday night's game. With the win, Sporting Kansas City now have a five-point cushion over their Eastern Conference rivals with only three matches remaining in the regular season (Chicago has one game in hand).
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes deployed the lineup many of us expected, minus one rather big change. Vermes opted to start Lawrence Olum in place of Aurelien Collin at center back. It was a move that left many Sporting faithful initially questioning the head coach's decision, but in all fairness, Olum rewarded Vermes' faith in him by more than holding his own during the match.
Sporting took control of the game early and often, controlling possession and pushing forward for much of the first half. The midfield trio of Roger Espinoza, Paulo Nagamura, and Julio Cesar was able to dominate the center of the pitch for much of the match, allowing Graham Zusi and Kei Kamara (as well as full backs Seth Sinovic, and Chance Myers) to continually threaten the Fire defense.
Vermes deployed Zusi out on the left wing at the start of the game, although Zusi would often tuck into a more central role, or at times, switch sides with Kei Kamara out wide. Vermes' willingness to let Zusi roam as he saw fit allowed the midfielder to find weaknesses in the Fire defense at an almost feverish rate at times.
It only took eleven minutes for Zusi to make a lasting mark on the match with his first goal of the evening.
Kamara, set up from a Paulo Nagamura pass, was able to beat Chicago Fire defender Gonzalo Segares down the right side of the field. The Sierra Leone international crossed a low ball into the middle of the Fire box, where Zusi, cutting in from the left wing, was able to slot the ball past Fire goalkeeper, Sean Johnson, and into the bottom right corner of the goal.
For their part, the Fire appeared to be looking to attack almost strictly on the counter during the earlier stages of the game, but as the second half progressed Chicago manager Frank Klopas instructed his players to push forward, no doubt looking for an equalizing goal.
The Fire would have instances of nice attacking play in the second half, but ultimately just couldn't seem to unlock Kansas City's defense in the final third.
Chicago's best chance may have came in the 73rd minute (although Chris Rolfe's shot in 57th minute was quite dangerous as well), when Chicago substitute Dominic Oduro was able to race with the ball down the middle of the field during a Fire counter attack. Oduro was able to find forward Sherjill MacDonald to his left, but MacDonald fired his shot just wide of Sporting KC's goal.
As time began to dwindle, and Chicago became more and more desperate to tie the match, the game really started opening up, with back-and-forth waves of attack from both teams.
However, Graham Zusi would put the game away for good in stoppage time, securing three points for the home side.
In the sixth minute of stoppage time Sporting KC forward CJ Sapong, set up from a lobbed pass from Chance Myers, was able to head the ball to Zusi just outside of Chicago's 18 yard box. With Chicago pushing so many players forward, it left Kansas City with a three-on-two opportunity. With the ball at his feet, Zusi faked two Fire defenders left, just enough to create space to switch back over to his right foot and fire a shot past Sean Johnson and into the bottom right corner of the Fire's goal.
The 2-0 victory marked Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen's 14th clean sheet of the season, currently the most in Major League Soccer in 2012.
Sporting Kansas City face off against the Columbus Crew on October 7th at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio at 3PM, CDT.