By TATE STEINLAGE
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The Philadelphia Union handed Sporting Kansas City its first home loss back in May. Friday it had another chance to play the role of spoiler by ending the champions’ seven-game MLS unbeaten streak.
Graham Zusi and company made sure that wouldn’t be the case. The recently-announced Designated Player ended a 50-plus minute deadlock with a goal to extend his team’s streak to eight games.
Philadelphia would still find a way to spoil the party, however. Substitute Brian Brown quieted the sold-out 21,318 Sporting Park crowd with a massive header well into the second half to stonewall the match at 1-1.
The result gives Sporting KC (39 points) a two-point cushion on MLS Eastern Conference opposition D.C. United and moves their record to 11-5-6 on the year. The Union (24 points) earn a tough road point to move within two points of three different conference foes. Philadelphia’s record moves to 5-8-9 heading into the All-Star break.
Friday featured the 22nd different lineup for Sporting KC. Defender and usual-captain Matt Besler was sidelined due to suspension from a red card picked up over the weekend in Toronto. Injuries to Seth Sinovic and Paulo Nagamura forced Kevin Ellis and Jacob Peterson to play out position for the full 90 minutes.
“We’re disappointed,” Vermes said after the match. “We’re disappointed not being able to come out of that game with three points. Although, I will say when you make a lot of changes like we had to — Jake (Peterson) playing left back, who actually did a darn good job, then you got to throw Kevin Ellis in there again — you lose that continuity and consistency.
“But don’t think the team played bad. I don’t think the team lacked work ethic. I think we had a good, solid game. You just have to give a little credit to Philadelphia because I thought they were pretty good organizationally on the field. But again, we had some good chances.”
Content to challenge Sporting KC on the counter, Philadelphia spent a majority of the first half defending with nine to 10 players behind the ball at all times. The strategy didn’t help Philadelphia in the possession column — 71 percent to 29 percent at halftime in favor of the home team — but it did leave Sporting KC with the tough task of breaking down the Union.
Sporting KC would create chances despite the defensive-minded Union — four to be exact. Zusi nearly caught Philadelphia goalkeeper Zach MacMath leaning the wrong way on a shot in the 24th minute, but it skidded just wide of the post. Twenty minutes later, Zusi set up midfielder Mikey Lopez with an excellent one-on-one opportunity in front of goal, but this time MacMath jumped at the right time to stop the effort.
The first breakthrough would come eight minutes out of the halftime break. Though Zusi was awarded the goal, it was forward Toni who controlled a difficult ball off his chest before delivering a gentle pass to his teammate for the calm, excellent finish.
The goal forced Philadelphia to throwaway their strategy and draw up a new one quickly.
“It changed a lot,” Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin said about the momentum change following Zusi’s goal. “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face, so when Graham scores that, things have to change and change quickly.
“We had to put on some fresher legs and try and put a little pressure on their half, a little more pressure than when we were just dropping to midfield and kind of conceding pressure.
“The idea was to let their centerbacks have the ball and if they’re 65 yards from goal, that’s okay. What I don’t want is Zusi and Dwyer finding pockets where they’re very good and a tough team to handle.”
Brown was one of those fresher legs. The substitute took advantage of the attack in the 71st minute by heading in a Raymon Gaddis cross past goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum — who was marvelous throughout the contest — to save his side three points on a night where it appeared dormant for long stretches.
Both teams will now have an extended break as the All-Star festivities kick off in Portland. Sporting KC will resume action Aug. 10 on the road against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Philadelphia will host the Houston Dynamo a day earlier in an important Eastern Conference clash.