With a huge win on the road over the weekend at the Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City increased their unbeaten streak to 10 games.
Yes, 10 games!
Things are quite different right now for the squad that saw themselves in the cellar of the Eastern Conference every week early on this season, while enduring that horrendous road trip.
The squad is playing with a confidence that was sorely lacking before, and some unlikely players are stepping up big time. The defense is becoming rock solid behind the play of Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin. Rookie CJ Sapong continues to improve his play as a target man up top, making many wonder how good this kid could be. And emerging star midfielder Graham Zusi was just named MLS Player of the Month, an honor not seen in KC since Eddie Johnson was here in 2007.
Yep, there’s plenty to be optimistic about, especially given Sporting’s back-loaded home schedule which is a result of the construction schedule at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park.
Saturday in Portland, Sporting’s CJ Sapong struck first on a beautiful solo effort in the 15th. Sapong received a ball in to his feet and did well to turn his defender. Then, in what looked far easier than it was, he simply hesitated and then beat his defender with speed, making the move look effortless. To cap it off, he coolly slotted a left footed shot under the oncoming keeper to break open the scoring in hostile JELD-WEN Field.
"What really helped us was getting the early goal," commented KC coach Peter Vermes. "It kind of took the crowd a little bit out of it… CJ did a good job at turning it, one thing that’s very good in his game as a young guy. As a forward he plays very well with his back to the goal and his turn was fantastic. He had a lot of composure to slip that ball into the back of the net."
Then, mere minutes later SKC struck again off of a long Matt Besler throw in – a weapon that has become ever more dangerous the last few games. First to the ball was – guess who? – CJ Sapong, who got just a slight touch with his head, slipping it to a bull-rushing Aurelien Collin who left his feet and directed his header into the side of the net.
But Portland wasn’t about to lay down.
As halftime drew near, Portland striker Darlington Nagbe hit what will surely be the MLS goal of the week, and a candidate for goal of the month. Off a busted corner, the ball bounced to Nagbe, who juggled the ball twice in the air before uncorking a vicious volley that found the top corner of the Sporting net. Jimmy Nielsen really had no chance to get a hand on it, but in any event the defense should not have allowed Nagbe the time to set himself up with so much time at the top of the box.
Despite the loss, Portland coach John Spencer was impressed with Nagbe’s strike.
"We’ve been fortunate in the last month to see three of the best goals in world soccer," said Spencer. "Hassli’s up at Seattle, Zusi’s against Dallas and that one tonight. If Cristiano Ronaldo scores that goal it’s splattered all over the globe. We’ve been fortunate enough that three MLS players have scored three world-class goals."
Grabbing the momentum heading to the locker room proved huge for Portland, and they came out the more aggressive side in the second half, dictating play and creating many more dangerous chances than KC could muster.
But in the end, Sporting held on and kept Portland scoreless in the second half, climbing to fourth in the Eastern Conference standings.
And a lot of that credit goes to Matt Besler, who has spurred the team on in their recent form.
"I think it’s just confidence," said Besler. "During the 10-gamee stretch that we had on the road, we thought we were playing well but things just weren’t going our way, so it’s tough, when you don’t get results, to keep your head up and to say, ‘Keep going, it’s going to be okay.’ For some reason, right now things are clicking and we’re very confident."
Sporting KC’s next game is this Wednesday at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park against 2010 MLS Cup Champion Colorado Rapids at 7:30.