Roster depth was tested as Matt Besler and Roger Espinoza, two players highlighted as important to Sporting’s success, were both missing from the lineup as Sporting squared off against Western Conference rival Real Salt Lake on Saturday Night. They failed the test, losing 2-1 in front of a packed house.
Besler was injured last week while training with the U.S. National Team when a ball was cleared by a teammate and struck him in the head, causing a concussion. Espinoza, the ball-hawking midfielder, was sent off for a red card tackle in the past game. In the past few seasons, Sporting has rarely had to manage without Besler at the center of defense, and ultimately it showed.
Salt Lake had issues of their own coming into the contest. An uncharacteristic meltdown against Portland in their previous game left their central midfield bulldog Kyle Beckerman and starting center back Jamison Olave unavailable due to red cards. They amazingly also were missing six other players including starting goalkeeper and U.S. Men’s National team regular Nick Rimando. On paper, with the home crowd behind them, this looked to be a victory in the making for the home Sporting, wearing their slick all-white uniforms.
Sporting attempted to handle missing Belser by inserting Kevin Ellis, a young player that has worked his way up the ranks and started 26 games last season. The main difference – nearly all of those starts last season were alongside Besler, not in place of him. On this occasion Ellis was partnered with newly acquired Nuno Coelho who joined the squad after a long career in his home country of Portugal. Coelho endeared himself to the Sporting faithful early in his time with the lone, game-winning, goal in the opening match of the season in Seattle.
From the onset, Real committed to being behind the ball and trying to win via the counter-attack. And their plan work quickly with up and coming forward Joao Plata gaining two early chances on goal that were saved comfortably by Tim Melia. The game began to heat up after 15 minutes as Sporting pressed to take the lead. Two quality corner kick chances within four minutes yielded little more than the impatient fans being left asking for more. Perhaps most telling through the first 25 minutes of the game creative midfielder Benny Feilhaber was rarely seen on the ball, a clear point of focus of Salt Lake in preventing his influence on the game.
In a match where the visiting team sits back and looks to find success on the counter attack the last thing the home side wants is to concede the first goal. In the 28th minute, Salt Lake midfielder Luke Mulholland was fouled 30 yards from goal by Soni Mustivar. With a creative set piece that included a bit of misdirection Justen Glad, himself a fill-in for the suspended center back Olave, and two others were left open on the back post. Glad headed the ball back across to the opposite post and beat Melia for the opening goal. One would think that with Besler on the field the defense is likely more organized to handle the runners in the box that might have prevented the opening goal. Despite owning 67% of the possession and creating five corner kicks in the first half, Sporting could not break through and went into the locker room frustrated to be down 1-0.
The second half brought more of the same with Sporting trying to press forward, maintaining possession and searching for the last pass to break free for the tying goal. What proved to be a key aspect of the game was the Real central midfield triangle that collapsed on Feilhaber each time Sporting tried to let the game flow through the creative midfielder. Sporting remained patient trying to break down the compact Salt Lake defense. Early in the second half Sporting broke through only to have the streaking Dia called offside. Then in the 54th minute, former Kansas City Wizard Yura Movsisyan broke through the Sporting defense and with a strike from 15 yards hit the cross bar, stunning the crowd to silence with a realization that in a moment Salt Lake could put the game away.
And that moment did come. In the 79th minute, Real took a corner kick that led to a scramble in the penalty box. Choosing not to clear the ball out of danger, Mustivar tried instead to spring Graham Zusi on a counter attack with a pass toward the middle of the field. Instead, his pass missed Zusi and rolled straight to Mulholland who side-footed a shot from 30 yards that beat Melia through traffic and nestled into the side netting to give Salt Lake a 2-0 lead with little more than ten minutes remaining. A 2-0 lead is said to be the most dangerous lead in soccer, but with 10 minutes remaining in the match it appeared to be the final nail in the Sporting coffin.
Sporting continued to push, hoping to relive past magical home comebacks. With five minutes of added time given after the full 90 minutes were played newly signed designated player Diego Rubio pushed into the penalty box and was taken down. He was awarded a penalty kick with two minutes remaining in the game as the fans felt just a minor glimmer of hope. Feilhaber stepped up and calmly put the ball in the back of the net. Excitement ensued as Feilhaber and Dwyer got in a shoving match trying to get the ball from the Real keeper who was trying to prevent a quick restart following the goal.
The penalty proved to be too little too late as the 20,553 in attendance were sent home frustrated and wondering what might have been had the flurry of activity from the corner kicks in the first half had led to an early lead.
Saturday was a night that Soni Mustivar would like to soon forget having a hand in allowing both goals. His foul in the midfield followed by poor marking meant a halftime deficit. Then a poor pass was intercepted in the defending third leading to the second and decisive goal.
Sporting will look to rebound Saturday in New York as they face the top MLS team from 2015, the New York RedBulls. New York is off to a slow start as well having only one win from four matches. Sporting will hope that Besler can return to the lineup and surely Espinoza’s steady influence will improve the midfield errors that were so costly this weekend. Sitting in second place through four games, Kansas City is still in good position in the young season and as the new members get more time to gel with the team better days are surely ahead.
Follow us on Twitter: @KCSportsNation