A valuable road point that would have given the club some breathing room in the tight Western Conference escaped Sporting Kansas City in a disappointing performance on the road Wednesday evening at New York City FC. It was Jack Harrison’s 85th minute goal that broke the hopes of the visitors in a match in which Sporting had already been fortunate.
Coming into their cross-conference Wednesday night match up at NYFC’s Yankee Stadium, both visiting Sporting Kansas City and home NYFC were coming off extended layoffs. Sporting had not touched the game field since August 19 and NYFC since August 25. But with only nine and eight games respectively left in the regular season, it is crunch time in the fight for the MLS playoffs and that vital home-field advantage in the first round of each team’s conference post-season. And rust could not be afforded by either team.
For the visitors (3rd in the West, two points behind leaders Seattle Sounders), the task was tall as they had only won once in their last nine road games and were short two starters with backs Graham Zusi and Matt Besler both starting for the US National Team the night before in Honduras. For the home side (2nd in the East, only three points ahead of third place Chicago Fire), although unbeaten in nine straight home games, the task was not easy either as they were a short side due to international absences and injuries (including leading scorer David Villa), forcing five nonregular starters into the lineup.
Early play was even and tight in the close confines of the smallest field in MLS as a drizzle dampened the field. But NYFC’s familiarity with the pitch and skill enabled the hosts to begin dictating the contest near the 10-minute mark as they tested Sporting’s ability to clear safely and their communication with goalkeeper Tim Melia via repeated flighted balls into the box.
Midway through the first half, however, Sporting had gained more of the ball and neither side had seriously threatened the other’s goal.
A 37th-minute corner kick provided Sporting with their best opportunity of the half as Benny Feilhaber’s corner was nodded down by center back Ike Opara, only to see right-back Saad Abdul-Salaam, in for Zusi, hit the open header from just outside the 6-yard box well over the bar of NYFC’s goal.
NYFC’s best chance nearly stopped the hearts of Sporting Kansas City, as a goal in first half extra-time would have been demoralizing. Number 10 Maximiliano Moralez latched on to a loose ball 20 yards out to the left and sent a fierce drive at Melia who was forced to punch the ball away. Fortunately, Moralez’s follow touch on the rebound was long and the threat went to nothing.
Sporting began the second half with their first shot on goal of the game as midfielder Roger Espinoza unleashed a left-footed shot from 24 yards out that forced a two-hand block by NYFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, the rebound of which Feilhaber sent just high and wide right.
Moralez threatened again in the 65th as he drove from a give-and-go on the right side and played a ball across the Kansas City box that evaded Melia and two defenders only to perhaps be brushed by NYFC’s Sean Okoli and then blocked by teammate Khiry Shelton as it seemed destined to cross the Sporting goal line.
Three minutes later, it was the hosts again as Jack Harrison struck a loose ball towards goal at point-blank range to Melia’s left. But Melia was well-positioned and dropped down a leg at Harrison’s leg-splitting attempt.
But in the 85th minute, a breakthrough. After Thomas McNamara forced a strong save from Melia as the Kansas City goalkeeper pushed the attempt left with a full-stretch save, RJ Allen sent in a cross that passed a battling Salaam and fell to an unmarked Harrison whose left-footed volley off his chest beat Melia to his left and into the net.
Sporting had come tantalizing close to gaining an important point on the road despite being on the wrong side of most chances, and NYFC had extended its unbeaten home streak to ten games.
Sporting will not have long to lick their wounds and raise their game as they travel to Columbus for another cross-conference battle in their battle in the packed Western conference standings where only seven points separate the top eight clubs in the battle for the playoffs.