By TYLER GRAY
SANDY, Utah– With Matt Besler recalled to the U.S. Men’s National Team, Sporting Kansas City defender Ike Opara took full advantage of his starting opportunity.
Opara scored on a header deep into stoppage time as Sporting KC ran out victors over Real Salt Lake, 2-1, on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL played the final 24 minutes of the match with ten men, after defender Chris Wingert was shown a second yellow card and was sent off.
Opara, who was thrust into the starting role after Besler was called up to the U.S. Gold CUp squad, took full advantage of the start to finish off a Zusi pass to clinch the victory.
“It was just a great ball by (Graham) Zusi,” Opara said. “We had a bunch of guys attacking it and I had to go up and get it. I was due for one.”
The physical nature of the game won out, as accurate passing wasn’t on display with 26 total fouls called between the two sides. The tone was set early when a tough head-to-head challenge between Chris Wingert and Kei Kamara resulted in the RSL defender receiving a yellow card in just the 3rd minute. Wingert appeared to launch himself into Kamara and the two knocked heads.
Just ten minutes after Sooney Saad nearly gave Sporting KC the lead, Robbie Findley took advantage of a Jimmy Nielsen mistake to put RSL on top. In the 56th minute, Nielsen came off his line to catch a floated free kick, but the Sporting KC goalkeeper let it slip through his hands, where Findley headed it across the line to the delight of the 19,832 in attendance.
A physical game between the two first place sides in both conferences deserved a dramatic ending. In the seventh minute of second-half stoppage time, Opara rose highest off a corner kick, heading past RSL goalkeeper Jeff Attinella for a crucial Sporting KC road win as they continue to stay atop the Eastern Conference.
The referee’s performance, and the lengthy amount of stoppage time that allowed Opara’s winner, brought out a post-game tirade from RSL head coach Jason Kreis, upset at the red card decision as well as the seven minutes of stoppage time.
“I just watched the replay and I wanted to come in with facts not opinions of what I saw or what I think I saw – I needed to watch it again,” Kreis said. “It’s a poor decision, an extremely poor decision against us. He [Wingert] barely touches the player, and he [Soony Saad] falls down. Now we’re picking up a second yellow card when there were multiple players on their team and weren’t picking up yellow cards for the same exact actions – pulling shirts, stopping counter attacks in the first half.
“The level of consistency was the lowest I’ve seen from a referee in MLS. And again, I don’t want to belabor the point about the referee being poor. He is going to be poor. It’s his 14th match of his entire career. The referee, in a sold out stadium, in a first place versus second place matchup, it’s the wrong game for him to make his 14th MLS game.”
Sporting KC Head Coach Peter Vermes felt that the corner kick was fair when asked about it after the game.
“Well it was five minutes, what he put up first, then they had the stoppage when the guy went down,” referring to Javier Morales who was fouled. “So I think they added the extra time for that stoppage when the player was down. That’s why I think they added that.”
Vermes was impressed at his squad’s dedication and fight, faced with the challenge of coming to Rio Tinto and playing the league leaders.
“We knew coming in here it was going to be a difficult match. We just needed to keep going and going and going. There’s not a lot of teams that go on the road and try and press high up the field like we did tonight. I thought that was a really good quality that took them out of their flow a little bit which helped us, I think, over the course of the game.”
Goalscorer, Soony Saad, echoed his coach’s comments, describing the hard-fought result.
“It was a tough game to get into. I think the first couple of minutes we couldn’t even develop a rhythm, a couple of injuries, a couple of fouls. I felt like we stuck it out. Even though we went down a goal we were able to recover and we were playing smart going at their left back because he had a yellow card. He got a red card and we were able to tie it and be patient enough to push for the game-winning goal.”