Friday October 31st, 2014

HARRISON, N.J. — In the 53rd minute at a crisp and cool Red Bull Arena, Sporting Kansas City defender Seth Sinovic leapt in the air and pumped his fist in the direction of his bench. Dom Dwyer wheeled off in celebration of his opening goal. Soon enough he was joined by a frantic gaggle of his teammates. The Sporting KC squad celebrated its opening goal on Thursday night with a gusto that suggested it was getting away with something. 

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The Red Bulls had missed a trio of wide-open chances in the preceding 53 minutes — chances that fell to normally reliable players like MLS' leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, Tim Cahill and even Thierry Henry. Sporting could easily have been 3-0 down. Instead, it was 1-0 up. 

As the players celebrated in a huddle, all smiles, one stern tone entered the fray. Defender and captain Matt Besler moved through the bodies and asserted himself individually to each player, delivering a simple message. 

“Don’t stop,” Besler said. “Don’t stop now.”

Yet it is here where the defending champions’ journey does stop. New York would add the last in a list of late-game collapses by Sporting KC to close its season, as a pair of late goals from Wright-Phillips canceled out Dwyer’s opener and pushed the Red Bulls into the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 2-1 victory.

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“I wanted to make it clear that no matter what the score was, we didn’t get away from our game plan,” Besler said of his message in the aftermath of Dwyer’s tally. “We just ran out of steam in the last 10 minutes, and they were able to capitalize on it.”

KC’s incredible late-season slide is complete. As late as August, the club was in contention for the Supporters’ Shield and the top seed in the East, but seven losses its final 10 league games derailed any of those hopes. Once sitting pretty on top, KC only managed to grab the conference's last playoff berth and a spot in the knockout round -- meaning yet another mid-week away date in a season full of them. Defensive lapses, out of character for a squad that last season boasted the league’s best defense, had become the norm in this ugly run. So it was on Thursday.

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In the 15th minute, Besler gave away a preventable free kick on the wing by handling the ball on the ground mid-tackle. The resulting service from Henry found Cahill waiting at the far post, six yards out, completely unmarked. The Australian international fired the ball over the bar at an angle that would give Pythagoras a headache. 

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Fifteen minutes after that, Wright-Phillips came just as close to opening the scoring -- which is to say, not close at all. He found ample space between central defenders Besler and Aurélien​ Collin but lifted his header over the crossbar from close range. 

Even Henry got in on the disappointment, putting the ball wide with his right boot in the 34th minute after moving into space left by poor positioning from Collin. 

“We kind of got away from what made us us,” Zusi said. “We pride ourselves on being a team who limits our mistakes, and for one reason or another, we started making those mistakes.”  

Dwyer’s goal was 13 minutes away from erasing those mistakes on Thursday when Wright-Phillips equalized. The catalyst: substitute midfielder Peguy Luyindula's through ball in to Henry, who flashed past 23-year-old homegrown product Kevin Ellis and served Wright-Phillips near the penalty spot. Besler, a step slow to the league’s record-tying goal scorer, could only muster a desperate attempt at a sliding block, then put his head in his hands after the smart finish rolled into the back of the net. 

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By the time the 90th minute rolled around, the Kansas City players must have felt the full weight of a hard season on their legs. That could explain why, when Ambroise Oyongo’s poor attempt at a cross hung in the air for a full 2.5 seconds, no Sporting player could find the energy or mental awareness to adjust and attack the ball to send it out of play. 

Instead, the ball landed on the unmarked head of Wright-Phillips, who brought a wounded champion’s season to a close with that was easier than it could have been. 

For some, like Besler and midfielder Graham Zusi, this is the end of what may feel something like three seasons. In addition to grinding through their club’s fixture list packed with CONCACAF Champions League games, the two also underwent a grueling pre-World Cup training camp with the U.S. national team. Then came the World Cup itself, where Besler suffered a hamstring injury as the U.S. progressed to the second round before bowing out to Belgium. Zusi played large roles in most of the U.S.’ games as well. On Thursday, neither looked like the players they were before Brazil. 

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“There’s no doubt that it becomes a lot over the course of the season,” Sporting manager Peter Vermes said. “And then you talk about the guys that we lost.” 

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Anticipating a busy season, Vermes had been proactive about acquiring players to provide depth. Yet much of that depth was obliterated due to injures, five of which ended players’ seasons. There were fitness worries even among the starters at Red Bull Arena. Midfielder Benny Feilhaber started and played the full 90 minutes despite suffering a sprained ankle in a Champions League loss to Saprissa one week ago. 

“When you lose that many guys in your group, you can’t replace them in this league because of the salary cap,” Vermes said. He stressed that he was happy how his players rose to the challenge and credited the Red Bulls for their win, but admitted that “a lot of guys have had to deal with a lot of games, and they’re just not ready for it.” 

Youngsters like 17-year-old defender Erik Palmer-Brown and 21-year-old goalkeeper Jon Kempin were forced into action for significant chunks of the year. Ellis made 20 league appearances (16 starts) this season after just two overall last term. He made his playoff debut Thursday, starting at right back despite being third on the depth chart behind Chance Myers (out for the season with a ruptured Achiles tendon), and Igor Juliao (hobbled with a strained hamstring). He nearly exited the game in the first half after suffering a calf injury, but gutted it out for the remainder of the contest. Henry’s run past Ellis set up Wright-Phillips’ equalizer.

And as Oyongo's mis-hit cross hung in the air, despite the pleas of Besler, Sporting Kansas City simply stopped. 

“It’s been a long one,” Zusi said before letting out a resigned sigh. “But I wish it could have been longer."

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