Sporting Kansas City wanted so badly to summon their best against the visiting Houston Dynamo…
But in the end, it might have been the anticipation, the yearning, the added bit of pressure, that undid Sporting and ended their season in front of a standing room LIVESTRONG crowd.
The atmosphere was second to none as both teams warmed up, with the electricity of playoffs and the possibility of the MLS Cup buzzing around all corners of the stadium. The late-fall sun cracked its way onto the playing surface, and the cool fall air filled with song, including choruses from the healthy dose of Houston fans that made the trip.
But once the whistle blew, Sporting seemed out of sync in a way I haven’t seen for months. Prior to Sunday’s game, the boys in blue have had purpose in their attack, cohesion in their defense, and an aggressive mentality.
But on Sunday, the gravity of the moment seemed to rattle coach Peter Vermes’ young squad.
“I think in the first half we got too much into this run-and-gun game,” Vermes said after the loss. “We wanted to play a little bit more disciplined in our game and recognize the moments when we could go and counter and recognize the moments when we needed to build the game up a little bit and keep possession. I thought we were just too direct in the first half.”
Kei Kamara reverted back to his mid-season form where he at times looked disinterested or exhausted. Teal Bunbury was like a ghost on the field. Even Graham Zusi, who has been so steady in the middle as this team’s field general, made several sloppy mistakes, giving away balls in dangerous situations and struggling a bit with his close control.
Houston finally struck first in the second half off a set piece that saw Jimmy Nielsen stop the initial header, only to have an opportunistic Dynamo player tap in the rebound.
Going down 1-0 only magnified Sporting’s panic, as the squad reverted to sending long balls into the box and hoping for a lucky break.
“When we went a goal down, there was a moment when we were just trying to lump it in the box because we wanted to get the goal back,” said Sporting forward Kei Kamara. “But, then we tried to calm ourselves down and play a little bit, but it didn’t click. It was one of those days.”
Instead of continuing to execute their game plan and playing within the system that got them to this point, KC looked flustered and that lucky break never came.
“We didn’t really play the way we wanted,” said Nielsen. “We were pumping balls up in the air the whole time. We didn’t play the ball on the ground like we usually do. At halftime we talked about it but then they came back and scored. Today we weren’t good enough to create those chances and score.”
Houston cemented the win with a breakaway goal towards the end of the second half, going up 2-0 on the floundering home side, and signaling to the 20,000 inside LIVESTRONG that the magical ride of the 2011 season was at end.
Afterwards, longtime Wizard/Sporting KC captain Davy Arnaud summed up the feeling inside KC’s glum locker room.
“Physically we didn’t leave anything out. We left everything on the field. We played with our hearts. It’s just soccer. Sometimes the ball isn’t going to going to go in for you.”
So while KC’s uncharacteristically disappointing performance was a bitter pill, there is plenty of hope going forward.
“This team has a bright future,” Nielsen assured. “There is a lot of talent in this team. I think the next couple of the years will be very good years for Sporting Kansas City. Hopefully we can keep this squad together. I want to be here and be a part of the future.”
Vermes, in his typical fashion, was already looking ahead, ready to move on and do what the club needs to prevent a let-down next season.
“We have a lot of work to do in the off-season,” said Vermes. “It starts right away. We have the expansion draft. We have a few contracts here and there, we’ve got new players to add, maybe some players to go. It’s all those decisions that you have to make at the end of the year.”
Photographs by Alex Jinks, creativephotoskc.com