Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
Tempers flared Wednesday night as Sporting Kansas City secured a berth in the US Open Cup final with a hotly contested 2-0 road win over the Union.
After a first half lacking in quality from both combatants, Kansas City found the breathrough in the 65th minute when Jacob Peterson buried a near post header past a hesitant Zac MacMath.
With both sides running on fumes in the final quarter of an hour, chances came on either end as the match grew increasingly stretched. The Union threw all outfield bodies forward in the dying moments of the match, and when MacMath misplaced his header when he looked to push his team forward, Graham Zusi rolled in a second for Kansas City from his side of the center stripe.
Despite finding themselves in the densest portion of their 2012 schedule, John Hackworth made only one change from the side that ran over Toronto FC on the weekend. Michael Lahoud returned to the midfield, with Gabriel Gomez rested. While the Union opened comfortably, knocking the ball around in their own half, they found themselves up against a more compact, organized side than the one they beat 4-0 less than a month ago.
Sitting deeper than expected, Sporting Kansas City focused on defending the passing lanes and keeping the Union defense from having easy outlets into the midfield. Early turnovers from Brian Carroll and Lahoud had Kansas City on the front foot and the Union back four were forced to abandon their preferred short passing game in favor of lofting long balls up field. Physically, the attacking trio of McInerney, Pajoy and Adu was no match for Sporting center backs Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler, and the Union defense quickly saw their long balls returning at them.
Defensively, the Union remained organized. When Carlos Valdes conceded a foul near the corner flag 11 minutes into the match, Amobi Okugo was there to assist his partner, heading clear from the set piece.
Sporting Kansas City looked to slow the match at every turn and the pace ground to a slow trot as their possession statistics improved. In the middle of the pitch, Sporting was benefiting from the quick movement of Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi, while their Union counterparts were struggling to find their teammates. Brian Carroll looked especially out of sorts as he launched a handful of casual long balls, none of which found their intended target.
Still, it was the Union who had the first real chance on goal in the 26th minute. The move started with Freddy Adu, who managed to squeeze his way through three defenders before cutting back for Pajoy from the endline. A fraction slow to react, Pajoy tried to maneuver into a shooting lane but was crowded out.
In a half that featured sixteen fouls between the teams, the first flashpoint arose on 29 minutes when Gabe Farfan spun on the ball, leaving Zusi on the turf holding his face. As Farfan moved the ball upfield, an incensed Kamara came crashing into Farfan off the ball, with the Union defender throwing out a boot in the exchange. Farfan ultimately went into referee Jorge Gonzalez’s notebook as the two sides gathered angrily.
When the match resumed, it fell back into the doldrums of sloppy passing, overly physical play and aimless long balls, with neither side able to stamp their authority on the proceedings.
But, despite playing below their par, the Union would still have the best chances as the half wore to a close. Both times it was Michael Farfan picking out Pajoy racing in between the two center backs. Unfortunately for Union supporters, on both occasions, the Colombian managed to leave the ball behind, failing to convert on each of his driving runs into the box.
With both sides in need of a lift in the second half, Sporting Kansas City was first out of the gates, controlling play and probing into the Union area. They would find no early scoring chances though, as Okugo did well to dispossess Bunbury in a dangerous position. Up top, McInerney and Pajoy tracked back hard to apply defensive pressure.
The match boiled over for a second time in the 53rd minute after the Union felt they were on the wrong end of two consecutive non-calls from referee Jorge Gonzalez. When Michael Farfan went hard into a challenge in midfield, he joined his brother with a yellow card. Paulo Nagamura joined him following the ensuing fracas.
As tensions built, Kansas City continued to press forward and began to find space in front of Zac MacMath’s goal. In the 59th minute, Bunbury cut through the center of the pitch to play in Kamara, whose shot was well wide of the mark.
Minutes later, Kamara turned provider, nodding a header across the box to Bunbury, but Bunbury failed to get power behind the shot, allowing MacMath to claim comfortably.
Firmly on the back foot, the Union conceded free kicks at an alarming clip. In the 62nd minute, Sheanon Williams became the third Union player to go in the book for a foul on Roger Espinoza.
Against a team of Kansas City’s stature, conceding free kicks is always a dangerous game and in the 65th minute, the Union were punished for one of their nineteen fouls on the night. Zusi stepped up to stand over the ball and picked out Jacob Peterson at the near post. His soft header seemed to confuse a slow reacting MacMath, allowing the ball to fly past him to give Sporting the vital breakthrough.
Kansas City nearly put the match to bed moments later when Kamara slipped in second half substitute C.J. Sapong. After beating MacMath with a low drive, Sapong watched his shot rebound off the goal post.
With the Union in need of a leveler, the match became stretched, and substitute Antoine Hoppenot nearly found the equalizer on 69 minutes. Receiving the ball at the top of the box, Adu turned and slid the ball into Hoppenot’s path. Jimmy Nielsen reacted quickly, however, deflecting the effort into the air, where his defense managed to clear their lines.
It was breathless end-to-end stuff, and MacMath was next called upon to shepherd Zusi away at a tight angle.
On the other end, Gabriel Gomez looked to have played Hoppenot in on Nielsen’s goal only to have Aurelien Collin rugby-tackle the speedy forward, earning him the last of six cautions on the night.
With time ticking away, the Union threw all of their numbers forward. Adu nearly found a desperate, last second equalizer. But after showing good skill to bring down Amobi Okugo’s cross, he could not keep his effort down, firing his shot over the bar.
On the stroke of full time, Zusi finally grabbed an insurance goal for Kansas City. Playing sweeper far up the pitch, MacMath was forced to head the ball away from the onrushing Sapong. He could only play it as far as Zusi, who struck the ball into the empty net from just inside his own half.
The Union’s next match is against the expansion Montreal Impact this Saturday at 7 pm.
Zac MacMath; Sheanon Williams, Amobi Okugo, Carlos Valdes, Gabriel Farfan; Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud (Gabriel Gomez ’66), Michael Farfan; Freddy Adu, Jack McInerney, Lionard Pajoy (Antoine Hoppenot ’64)
Substitutes: Chris Konopka, Keon Daniel, Chris Albright, Josue Martinez, Raymon Gaddis
Sporting Kansas City
Jimmey Nielsen; Chance Myers, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, Seth Sinovic; Paulo Nagamura, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza; Teal Bunbury (C.J. Sapong ’64), Kei Kamara, Jacob Peterson
Substitutes: Soony Saad, Michael Thomas, Julio Cesar, Eric Kronberg, Peterson Joseph, Michael Harrington
65 – SKC: Peterson (Zusi)
90 – SKC: Zusi
30 – PHI: G. Farfan (caution)
52 – PHI: M. Farfan (caution)
52 – SKC: Nagamura (caution)
57 – PHI: Lahoud (caution)
62 – PHI: Williams (caution)
77 – SKC: Collin (caution)