Photo by Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports Images
By TATE STEINLAGE
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For the fourth consecutive year, Sporting Kansas City is heading to the playoffs.
Graham Zusi and Dom Dwyer scored in the final 12 minutes of Friday’s game, and Andy Gruenebaum notched his third-straight shutout, as Sporting KC bested the Chicago Fire 2-0 in front of 18,938 at Sporting Park.
Zusi broke an 80-minute-long deadlock with a superb left-footed effort to put the home team up a goal. Dwyer then headed in a Zusi cross early in second-half stoppage time to secure the victory and a postseason berth.
“I think this win tonight is just a huge win for us,” Zusi said after the match. “It gives us even more confidence and some momentum going into the playoffs, which has proven in the past to be huge — teams that are confident and playing well going into the playoffs typically go pretty far.”
With the win, Sporting KC (14-11-7, 49 points) jump into second place in the MLS Eastern Conference heading into the rest of the weekend’s matches. The reigning MLS Cup champions will be back in action next Saturday at Philadelphia before closing out the regular season at home against the New York Red Bulls.
“It is important for us to take advantage of what we can control, and right now we had an opportunity to get into the playoffs now and rest ourselves as we go forward,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said.
“That’s something we’re going to have to do because we’ve been through a very difficult time this year and the guys need to get a little break and make sure, when we get to the playoffs, we have as many healthy bodies as we can. It’s a very short progression to get there, but it’s very intense and we need to be ready for that.”
The Chicago Fire (5-9-18, 33 points) avoid their 19th draw of the season, but fall to their conference rival for the first time this season. The Fire will look to snap a seven-game winless streak next Saturday in Washington D.C. against D.C. United.
Both teams had their chances in a back-and-forth, scoreless first half. Dwyer skied a penalty attempt in the 13th minute after Benny Feilhaber was clipped inside the box, marking his first miss from the spot in eight tries across all competition this season.
Later in the half, Sporting KC was denied a goal when Feilhaber’s rocket from 20 yards out ricocheted off the post and rolled straight into the arms of Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Chicago’s opportunities were maximized midway through the half. Patrick Nyarko rose up to meet an excellent Alex cross in the 22nd minute, and Matt Watson drove a shot on goal following a pass from Quincy Amarikwa six minutes later. But on both occasions — four total in the first half — Sporting KC goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum provided quality saves to keep the visitors off the scoreboard.
Johnson again denied Sporting KC early in the second half, but the home side out-possessed the Fire, 60-40, giving Zusi the chance for his breakthrough stunner in the 80th minute. Dwyer then capitalized on the one-goal advantage, finding space to rise up and head Zusi’s cross past Johnson in the 92nd minute.
“If you look at the game as a neutral, it was a pretty even game with chances, and I thought we played pretty well tonight,” Chicago Fire manager Frank Yallop said. “We created some real good opportunities. But if you look at the quality finish from Graham Zusi, which was a terrific goal — a great strike — there’s not much you can do about that one. Then we’re chasing the game trying to get back into it with minutes left, and then obviously a good finish by Dwyer.”
Here are the match highlights: