By TYLER DAY
Entering their match against the Chicago Fire on Sunday, Sporting Kansas City were aware of two things. Keeping Mike Magee from scoring is extremely tough, and beating the Fire with Magee in the lineup had yet to be accomplished.
They didn’t figure out how to stop Magee, who scored his eighth goal in nine matches, but Sporting KC did figure out how to beat the Magee-led Fire, riding a fast start and two early goals on their way to a 2-1 victory over the Fire at Toyota Park.
Early goals from Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi put the Fire in a hole they couldn’t climb out of, even after Magee delivered his latest goal for the Fire.
The loss snapped the Fire’s six-match unbeaten and helped move Sporting Kansas City into first place in the Eastern Conference.
It was a different atmosphere heading into Sunday’s game between the clubs compared to their first meeting in March. The Fire were the red hot team, climbing their way up the Eastern Conference standings, while SKC had faltered a bit, just 1-1-4 in their last six.
Despite those track records heading into Sunday, it was Sporting KC that took command from the outset. In the 6th minute, Sporting KC defender Matt Besler launched one of his patented long throw-ins that bounced off a Fire defender and out to a wide-open Benny Feilhaber at the top of the box. Feilhaber crushed a shot off the inside of the left post and into the net to give Sporting KC the 1-0 lead.
Sporting extended their lead less than two minutes later when Fire defender Jalil Anibaba failed on a clearance. The ball fell to Kansas City defender Seth Sinovic, who tapped it to Graham Zusi. With no pressure from the Fire, Zusi lined up from outside the left corner of the box and curled it up and over Fire goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi to give the away side a two-goal advantage.
“It was a cross for sure,” Zusi laughed after the game. Nonetheless, his good fortune was enough to secure the three points.
At that point it looked like the rout may be on, but Magee pulled one back for the Fire in the 38th minute after a poor clearance from SKC. Fire midfielder Jeff Larentowicz attacked a header in the middle of the field and sent it back through the defense to his on-running striker. One on one with Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, Magee calmly slotted a shot into the left side of the net to bring the Fire within one.
The Fire had allowed early goals in each of its last three matches, all wins, so perhaps Magee’s goal could ignite the team for another comeback. But they looked especially tired and sluggish and were never very dangerous in the second half.
“Those are tough conditions,” Zusi said. “It was very humid, very hot. I think it took us until the second half to catch our breath and get going.”
After allowing ten shots in the first half, the Fire managed just two in the second. SKC also flipped the possession advantage from 54 percent in favor of the Fire to 62 percent for SKC in the second.
SKC coach Peter Vermes praised his teams ability to clamp down on defense after Magee’s goal.
“I really thought we managed the game in the second half really well,” Vermes said. “We were unlucky not to get a third one.”
Asked whether there was extra incentive for his guys to put down this surging Fire team, Vermes was hesitant.
“These conference games – we all realize how important they are to us. I don’t know if there is anything added,” Vermes said. “Look, we go about our business with a lot of consistency. Sometimes you fall out of form a little bit and it all depends on how fast you get back into form.”
After Houston and New England both won on Saturday, the Fire lose ground in its effort to jump back into the playoff picture. It was the team’s first loss since May 18th. They fall to 6-8-3, 21 points, five back of Houston for a playoff spot. The club travels to Vancouver for an important match next Sunday night.
Sporting Kansas City, 8-5-6, 30 points, now second in the Eastern Conference, returns home to face Toronto FC next Saturday.