Matt Reis (center) was instrumental in preserving New England's win over Sporting KC. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Three thoughts on the New England Revolution's 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City in the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup at Gillette Stadium:
1) This was a game of two halves. When two of the league's most possession-oriented teams get together, it would be reasonable to expect a game of relatively smooth, free-flowing soccer. The first half was anything but. With football lines down on the Gillette Stadium turf, the game's opening stanza seemed to imitate an NFL game at times in terms of brute force. Fittingly, the half's most important play didn't even involve feet -- New England's Lee Nguyen was well-placed on the goal line to get his chest in the way of an Aurelien Collin header in what was the closest either side came to scoring. Still Kansas City had to feel pretty good going in to half time. It might not have been pretty, but Sporting controlled the flow of large portions of the game, with Graham Zusi playing especially well pulling the strings in all sorts of dangerous spots.
The second half, though? Different story. New England coach Jay Heaps made a few tactical adjustments during the interval, the most effective of which was moving Juan Agudelo out wide and Dimitry Imbongo in the center to deal with Collin's physicality. After that, New England seemed to get a real foothold in the game, and the positive momentum built up by Kansas City in the opening half began to evaporate. Zusi found space harder to come by. A goal-line scramble saw Andy Dorman bundle home the opener in the 55th minute, amid protests from Peter Vermes and his Sporting KC players (and many observers on Twitter) saying Dorman was offside. Was he? Let's go to the video tape.
And here's a screenshot of the moment the ball ricocheted back to Agudelo, tweeted by MLSsoccer.com's Andrew Wiebe. Not a definitive angle, but Dorman (in the center of the three forward New England players) looks to be onside.
From there, the floodgates opened. Kelyn Rowe doubled New England's advantage with this fantastic outside-of-the-boot finish, the latest in a long line of impressive scoring plays from the 21-year-old in his second professional season.
Put in a position of desperation, Sporting pushed harder than ever for the equalizer, and got a goal from Collin as he finished a tap-in from close range after a corner kick. But the fact that KC was reliant on such a goal reveals a flaw that could derail their playoff hopes. Which brings me to…
2) Sporting got no help from their forwards. Vermes surprised many with his starting lineup selection, particularly forward Teal Bunbury. The 23-year-old was making just his second start of the season, and his first in over two months. For a team that has had as much trouble scoring goals as KC has lately, it was a curious decision, and Bunbury didn't exactly justify it over the course of the game. Though the one-time U.S. national team striker did well to apply pressure across the New England back line, his finishing touch looked like exactly what you would expect out of someone who hasn't played much after recovering from a major knee injury. He looked rusty. Twice in the first half, Bunbury failed to finish easy chances directly in front of goalkeeper Matt Reis -- goals that could have given KC the early advantage it so often craves so that its league-best defense can do its job.
Questions also have to be asked about the exclusion of Claudio Bieler, the team's leading scorer who didn't even make the trip to New England. The Argentine had been dealing with a groin injury, but he was feeling well enough to make sporadic sub appearances late in the season. This has the look of a falling out between manager and player, but it could just as easily be something else. Regardless, Sporting could have used Bieler's finishing touch on the end of a few of those Graham Zusi crosses in this game.
3) Rowe and Reis were excellent for New England. Rowe furnished the only legitimately pretty goal of the night, which makes sense. Rowe has enjoyed a breakout second campaign in the pros -- his field vision and long-range shooting helped the Revs attack become one of the most energetic and inventive in the league.
At the other end of the field, the 16-year veteran Reis came up with another solid outing between the pipes in a career that seems to be chock full of them. Reis was helpless on Collin's goal, but excellent in nearly every other facet of the game -- controlling the air in the penalty area, organizing his young back line, and, of course, stopping shots. Like, for example, this excellent save on Dom Dwyer in stoppage time.
If Sporting KC's offensive struggles continue in the second leg, that save could well be the most important play of this playoff matchup. Without it, the scores end knotted at two, and Sporting goes home needing only one goal and a strong defensive performance to move to the next round. But thanks to Reis, Kansas City must now score two and hope to contain a New England attack that will be as confident as ever.