It looked like the smallest crowd of the season so far at Sporting Park on a muggy yet mild Tuesday night for the CONCACAF Champions League showdown against Nicaraguan side Real Esteli.
And the turf was looking bad from the get-go, an issue that’s been plaguing the Sporting ground crew for awhile now, with the Columbus Crew blaming it for three “muscle injuries” after last week’s game. A big patch of it tore up as several Esteli defenders challenged Uri Rosell on a ball up the middle. One of the Esteli defenders tried to tamp it back down, but for the rest of the half we were left with a small mound about 30 yards out right in front of the visitors goal.
By about 8 minutes in, it really looked like this was going to be a one sided affair. Sporting was playing their A squad, and Esteli could barely get the ball past midfield.
Yep, I said their A squad, with Aurelien Collin and Chance Myers not in the starting lineup – and that’s the truth.
Ike Opara is almost as good in the air, less error prone, and better on the ball then the Frenchman. And that’s not just the grass-is-greener syndrome. Ike’s started almost a dozen games this year, and subbed into a handful more.
And Josh Gardner‘s a sturdier and probably better offensive version of Chance Myers. Chance has the edge in terms of top speed, but he sure doesn’t use it to his advantage all that often. So that’s kind of a wash, really.
And what was up with Benny Feilhaber? He looked the most animated and frustrated I’ve seen him this season. He took a long jog out of position to talk to KC boss Peter Vermes at one point, palms outstretched.
After failing to draw blood in the first 30 minutes, Sporting was becoming frustrated. Like, “We’re better than these guys, why aren’t we up a couple?” Passes become errant, tackles got sloppy.
The natives were getting restless.
Players started yipping at each other. Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic urged Peterson Joseph repeatedly to get his head in the game, get on his mark. (He was subbed at half in favor of CJ Sapong, with Graham Zusi sliding back into mid).
There was a definite and palpable edge floating around in the fog at Sporting Park as the two squads headed to the locker room tied 0-0, with very little created by either. It might’ve been the 70-30% possession in favor of KC.
Then in the 53rd minute it happened. Esteli earned a corner and buried the ensuing header. Just like everyone knew they would, the way KC was crumbling.
Could Dom Dwyer breathe some life into the squad? My bet was he could. Dwyer came on for Claudio Bieler in the 61st minute.
Moments later KC got two quality chances, both were blocked by defenders.
Then the Nicaraguans started diving. Going down like flies. Two were stretchered off in the span of three minutes.
Maybe it’s Jacob Peterson that can provide the spark? He came on for Soony Saad with about 15 minutes to play.
Then another Nicaraguan went down, and on came the stretcher. Again.
Then a strange thing happened. KC won a corner and instead of settling in front of the goal, Esteli held a high line, almost like they were trying to draw the opposing team offside. Peterson was literally standing inside the 6 yard box unmarked and waving his arms, while everyone else lined up near the top of the 18. Zusi looked up, played a ball on the ground to him for a one time finish into the back of the net, drawing things even at 1-1.
“We were screaming off the bench because they had everybody on the back post and Jake [Peterson]’s standing there all by himself so it was really improvisation and credit to Graham [Zusi] for seeing it,” Vermes said afterwards.
Then guess what?
Esteli’s keeper crumpled to the ground. Miraculously, he did not need to be stretchered to the nearest emergency room.
Then another guy dived, then another, and another. You get the picture, right? And for some reason the ref was content to appease these jokers.
You expect to get screwed when you go to Central America, but at home too?
In the 90th minute the hits just kept on coming, with a terrible offside call that the in-stadium replay moments later showed at least two Esteli defenders on the goal line.
What are you going to do though, right?
Finish a few chances, I guess.
In extra time three more Esteli players rolled around on the ground wasting time.
Sporting continued to push and pressure, trying to simply gut out a result from an otherwise sub-par performance against a clearly inferior team.
In the 94th minute, two more Estelli players went down.
Then a last second, open goal roller that Jacob Peterson put wide with the side of his foot.
The final whistle sounded, and very few pleasantries were exchanged between the two squads.
Graham Zusi’s tweet summed things up just about right:
Apologies to the fans. Embarrassing performance tonight
— Graham Zusi (@gzusi) September 18, 2013