Last year, Sporting Kansas City were the class of MLS. They finished one point behind RB New York, won the League Cup, went undefeated in the Champions League, and were knocked out of the round of 16 of the US Open . This year, they were sent out of the Champions League when it resumed in March, but arrived in Cascadia as the MLS league leaders.
Tonight, they go to bed knowing that they trail Seattle and are level on points with Salt Lake. With New York City FC and Orlando City SC joining in 2015, Atlanta in 2017, and Miami yet to come, Sporting will find themselves in the West sooner or later, and we wouldn't be surprised if it came as early as next season.
Ever since the Montreal Impact made the move up from NASL, MLS has had an uneven number of clubs, with 9 in the West, and 10 in the East. New York City and Orlando will make that 9 and 12, so at least one will be making the move for 2015, and a second by 2017.
But which will it be? Geographically speaking, Houston and Kansas City are roughly parallel. The Dynamo would love to be in the same conference as Dallas, but the same could be said of Kansas. Dallas and Denver are within driving distance of Kansas City, and supporters from the Cauldron and the South Stand regularly make the trip... every second year.
And just how good are Kansas City, anyway? They arrived as league leaders, but against the West, they only managed a paltry 1-2-2 record. Surprisingly, their 1 point per game average against Western opposition puts them slightly behind the Eastern average of 1.07, thanks to their collective 18-23-31 record when facing Western opposition.
Even more surprising was the way they played. Igor Juliao scored and own goal, Aurelien Collin pulled Omar Salgado down from behind on two occasions, one in the box, and Matt Besler was an absolute disgrace. Harsh words, we admit, but it's less than he deserved.
The Whitecaps, oh yes, they were there too, saw the return of Andy O'Brien in place of Carlyle Mitchell, and the big Englishman easily dealt with his compatriot, Dom Dwyer. Considering that Dwyer has scored 14 times for his club this year, and currently leads the league in shots taken, the fact that O'Brien was able to hold him to only one attempt speaks volumes.
And the one shot he did get past Andy went well wide of the mark.
David Ousted deserves a lot of credit for maintaining his concentration in a fairly quiet evening. On the two occasions that Kansas City's shots were neither blocked nor wide of the target, the Great Dane was there to make the save.
The Whitecaps started their attack early and continued to press for the rest of the night. In the fourth minute, Steven Beitashour combined with Sebastián Fernández and Darren Mattocks to stretch the Sporting defence to the breaking point. And while Aurélien Collin's desperate move was able to deflect Mattock's final effort so that it skimmed the wrong side of the post, the gauntlet had been thrown down. Vancouver had come to play.
Thirteen minutes later, Pedro Morales looked up the field and spotted Igor Juliao alone on the edge of the box. The Chilean crossed the ball, and the Brazilian headed it over Andy Gruenebaum and into the back of the net. We can only assume that Juliao thought that Gruenebaum was still on his line, and thus the headed ball would have allowed Gruenebaum to catch it. But he was not. Fernández, Gruenebaum, and Collin chased after it, but there was nothing anyone could do to stop that ball. Vancouver were elated, Kansas City dejected, and the Whitecaps led by one.
Dwyer picked up a yellow card in the 25th minute after Johnny Leverón tried to kick the ball up field. The linesman was perfectly positioned to spot the midair boot on boot contact. As Dwyer had played the man first and not the ball, Leverón was sent spinning into a midair somersault. For reasons that elude us, Dwyer appeared surprised to receive the caution.
As the first third drew to a close, Erik Hurtado's cross was intercepted in the box by Juliao, but Mattocks pounced on the loose ball and forced Gruenebaum into a difficult save. With play like that, one wonders if Igor Juliao would be better suited to serving as a lab assistant than as Collin's partner at the back.
A minute later, the Whitecaps earned a spot kick. Pedro Morales curled the ball around the wall. It was headed low and to the bottom of the near post, but Gruenebaum managed to make the save. But he left the ball. Collin and O'Brien both pounced on it. Gruenebaum was able to pick up the ball before O'Brien could reach it, but Collin put a hand on the ball, helping to push it into Gruenebaum's chest.
There was no foul committed, no whistle, and no stoppage in play. The ball was still in play and it was deliberately handled by an outfield player. It should have been a penalty. But Andy, ever the gentleman, did not protest the incident and the referee did not see it. But we did.
Throughout the match, Besler and Morales battled for the ball, with the Kansan often coming up second best. In the 39th minute, with Morales in full control of the ball, and Besler a good eight feet away, he lunged, clipping Morales's trailing leg as the Chilean simply went around his counterpart. To Pedro's credit, he did not let the late tackle deter him. He stumbled, but managed to right his run, creating a two on one situation with Mattocks against Collin.
With Collin focusing more on Morales, he sent the ball over to Mattocks. The Frenchman tried to get back, but by then, Mattocks had already sent the ball past Gruenebaum and into the back of the net to put Vancouver ahead by two goals. And to think, had Morales gone down as so many would have, Vancouver would have had a free kick in their own half.
Vancouver would continue to press. In first half stoppage time, Morales sent a perfectly timed ball for Fernández. Collin immediately raised his hand as Mattocks was in an offside position, but he wasn't interfering with play, and held up until he was played onside. Collin, only when he realised that he hadn't been given the call, began to chase after Fernández, who had a free run at Gruenebaum.
The Uruguayan was able to beat Gruenebaum on the right side, but the Kansan Keeper got just enough to slow it down. Collin raced with Fernández and made the off the line clearance before rolling into the back of the net himself. Besler arrived, late as usual, and when Fernández slipped around him, Besler took out the Uruguayans legs from behind.
Astonishingly, Besler was not cautioned for his late two footed foul in the box. No penalty kick was given. Instead, Sporting were awarded a goal kick. It was an almost Donovanesque call by the official. One can only wonder what was in the fine print of the contract he renegotiated last month. It made him a Designated Player. Could it have given him power over the officials as well?
Sporting Kansas City started the second half with an early shot on target, one the two they would have on the night. But it was an easy save for David Ousted to make, straight at him, and with very little power behind the ball.
Seeing Seth Sinovic coming in on his left, Gershon Koffie made a nice little spin to his right, maintaining control of the ball. Sensing Benny Feilhaber approaching from behind, he passed it off to Hurtado, but Feilhaber continued, bull rushing the Ghanaian from behind, and not even stopping to see if Koffie was all right. He was immediately issued a yellow card by match official David Gantar.
Hurtado came off in the 68th minute, a few minutes after earning a yellow card for after rash challenge on Sinovic, for Mehdi Ballouchy. Earlier in the match, he taken quite the knock from a head-on-head collision and looked every bit the warrior.
Leverón had a nice attempt off a corner in the 70th minute, but Feilhaber was able to head it away from danger and proved once again why it's always a sound decision to put a defender on each post during a corner kick. And even with Feilhaber, Jordan Harvey was coming in an almost redirected the ball past Feilhaber and goalkeeper Jon Kempin, who had been brought in at half time.
In the 78th minute, Kansas City got their second shot on target, though this too was easily dealt with by Ousted. He would still have twelve minutes plus time, but Sporting never seriously troubled him, before or after.
With the clock ticking down, Collin pulled Omar Salgado down in the box. They had been jostling, as is often the case, but Collin put two arms around Salgado's neck. You just can't do that. Maybe Omar went down a bit easy, he felt the contact around his shoulders and neck, and maybe he decided not to fight it at that point.
Whatever the reason, Collin pulled Salgado down despite the Texan having the advantage in terms of height, weight, and age, and referee blew for the penalty kick. Karma can be a funny thing. Kansas City had every right to question the penalty decision, which we feel was six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Salgado had put his arms around Collin and leaned his back into him, giving Collin little recourse but to put his arms over Salgado's shoulders. With Morales already having been substituted for Russell Teibert, Mattocks took the penalty kick and saw it saved by Kempin.
Before the night was over, Collin would pull Salgado down a second time, though this one was well away from the box. After an agonising five and a half minutes of stoppage time, David Gantar finally blew the whistle.
And while the final score did flatter the visitors, it was by no means a comprehensive victory for the Whitecaps. They had their chances. They could have had two more penalties go their way, and could have scored a couple of more from the run of play.
But they didn't. They kept Kansas City in the game not because of Sporting's successes, but by their own failures. There is still much to be done. Still, it was a clean sheet and a victory against one of the best clubs in the league.
They were able to raise their game to the level of their opponents, and they won. But they've shown an uncomfortable habit of lowering their game when faced with what looks like an easy opponent. On Saturday, they head to Los Angeles to face Club Deportivo Chivas, and will return the following week to meet the Los Angeles Galaxy.
After that, they will continue with the Quest for La Quinta when they play host to the visiting Portland Timbers on August 30th.