Jamie Squire, Getty Images
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Real Salt Lake turned away corner after corner from Sporting Kansas City in the first half of Saturday's clash between MLS's top two teams.
But all Sporting needed to stay undefeated and deal Real its second loss of the season was one crack in the defensive wall, and it came shortly after the break.
Sporting defender Aurelien Collin barreled to the back post unmarked to head in Graham Zusi's corner in the 63rd minute and Real rarely challenged Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen in a gritty 1-0 loss.
"It just wasn't our night tonight," Real captain Kyle Beckerman said. "All the boys battled."
Collin's goal busted up 269 straight minutes of shutout soccer by Real. An impressive streak, but one surpassed in its "wow factor" by Sporting's feat of not allowing so much as a shot on goal in 335 minutes.
That was snapped when Nielsen saved Nat Borchers' header in stoppage time — Real's last, best chance.
As predicted, the team struggled to get its short passing attack untracked against Sporting's pressure defense, which has allowed one goal this season.
"They do just such a tremendous job of battling and fighting, all of the players out there," Real coach Jason Kreis said of Sporting. "We have to figure out solutions to that. I still think there's ways to play against them rather than just trying to get behind them all of the time."
Leading scorer Fabian Epindola found little space working against Collin, a broad-shouldered, physical Frenchman. Espindola's best chance came in the first half when he rolled a shot wide of the net while harassed by two defenders on the left side of the box.
Ironically, Kreis said his team might have been better off if a disallowed goal by Kansas City just before halftime had stood.
Sporting's 6-foot-2 forward C.J. Sapong appeared to score his fourth goal of the season on a point-blank header. But the official called Sapong for a push, rushing in and waving off the goal even as blue confetti rained down on the sellout crowd at LiveStrong Sporting Park.
A scare, to be sure, but perhaps not scary enough, Kreis suggested.
"I think we were a little bit too content to defend for most of the 90 minutes," he said.
"Perhaps a goal before half and we would have spent 45 minutes trying to attack."
Real dodged that bullet, but Sporting kept reloading and firing from the corners.
Kansas City earned nine corner kicks in the first half, forcing a pressured but game Real defense to gear up again and again. One corner was cleared by 5-foot-8 Tony Beltran, who soared above two Kansas City players to head it away.
"Tony's always going to give every ounce of his body," Kreis said. "He commits himself fully to the team's efforts."
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando had to make a lunging, one-handed save on yet another headed corner in the 75th minute, just to keep Real's hopes alive.
Rimando, who finished with two saves, also said the wind was a factor.
"The way he was hitting those, it was going with the wind, so it came in pretty quick ... both those balls that were dangerous for them," Rimando said. "One found the back of the net."
That would be Collin's header off a free run —his second goal of the season and Zusi's league-leading sixth assist.
"One player falls asleep and a header at the six(-yard box) is always going to hurt you," said Kreis, who added that his defense was otherwise solid.
Real Salt Lake fell to 5-2 on the season with the loss, but stayed two points up on San Jose, which tied New York 2-2, in the Western Conference standings.
"We'd love to see those guys again," Beckerman said. "This will drive us to work even harder."
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