RSL came into Saturday's game on one of the most impressive unbeaten streaks in club history and certainly in the league this season.
But Kansas City came into Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday night on one of its own: a five-game streak that found them at the top of the Eastern Conference.
With Kansas City's notorious high-risk, high-reward style of play, Jason Kreis started speedsters Robbie Findley and Joao Plata up top, but in the end it wasn't their speed but their athleticism that made the difference.
Joao Plata's unending energy and ability to break down the Kansas City defense kept RSL, on the balance, in charge of possession in KC's final third, but it was Robbie Findley's athleticism in the 56th minute that allowed him to make a tough adjustment in the air to back out of the goal-mouth and head a Jimmy Nielsen miss into the net for RSL's go-ahead goal.
Shortly thereafter Chris Wingert was sent off with a second yellow card and moments later Kansas City pulled equal with a beautiful Soony Saad bicycle kick off a missed Lovel Palmer clearance.
RSL seemed destined to escape with a tie, even with a man down, but a Kansas City corner kick in the 97th minute (after 5 minutes of stoppage time was announced) found KC defender Ike Opara wide open without an extra defender in the box, and Sporting KC dashed RSL's hopes of adding a 12th game to their unbeaten streak.
Chris Higbee is the General Manager of DeseretNews.com.
Change: With Nick Rimando on national team duty and Josh Saunders injured, Jason Kreis called on third-string keeper Jeff Attinella to step between the posts for RSL. Sporting KC's proclivity to pressure meant Attinella would not only have to be on his toes defensively, but the quality of his distribution would be critical to RSL's counterattack.
Jeff Attinella had a week to think about his second MLS start and while it didn't seem to affect his defensive play too much, his long distribution left a lot to be desired. On a night where RSL needed strong distribution out of the keeper's spot, it gave the Claret and Cobalt precious few opportunities to break off the deep ball. But back to his defense. Kansas City had too many opportunities, but Attinella was superb, turning away several shots on goal, the most impressive coming in the 48th minute off a low burner from Kansas City forward Soony Saad. Unfortunately there was little he could do in the 66th minute to stop Saad's point blank bicycle kick. And Ike Opara's 97th minute header came off a tough screen for Attinnella, not unsavable, but pretty close.
Tactics: RSL's back line is massively depleted due to national team call-ups and injury. RSL relied heavily on veterans Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert to anchor the defense. Lovel Palmer started in place of Tony Beltran at right back and Aaron Maund stepped into the rotating door at right center back.
Chris Wingert drew a difficult mark with Kai Kamara manning the right side of KC's three-man frontline. The physical and speedy forward was a handful to be sure, but Saturday wasn't Wingert's first rodeo. Positioning can beat speed every time and Wingert is a master at positioning. As for physicality, Wingert gives as good as he gets. Wingert earned two yellow cards during the game to be sent off in the 66th minute. Minutes later, Kansas City made RSL pay for Wingert's mistake with a tying goal.
Nat Borchers needed to play out of his mind Saturday night to keep Sporting Kansas City's eager and talented front line from ripping into RSL's depleted back line and testing its untested keeper more than desired. Borchers did his best to do jus that, and it almost — almost was enough. He played a key role in Robbie Findley's go-ahead goal by distracting Jimmy Nielsen just enough to make him miss and he was key to RSL holding off KC's final onslaught to the point everyone thought RSL just might get out of this one with a tie. But in the end, Borchers is only one man and with only eight others left on the field after Wingert was sent off, it just wasn't enough.
Aaron Maund is pretty clear evidence that RSL has perhaps the deepest defensive bench in Major League Soccer. As the fourth string center back, Maund was very adequate filling in for Carlos Salcedo, who was filling in for Kwame Watson-Siriboe, who had filled in for Chris Schuler. But he's also a reminder of the importance of keeping concentration until the final whistle blows. He certainly may have been wondering what he was still doing on the field in the 97th minute after the referee had announced 5 minutes of stoppage time, but it was no excuse to lose his concentration as KC defender Ike Opara rubbed him off to ping the game-winning goal into the net over a flat-footed Maund.
Lovel Palmer played with tremendous heart Saturday, winning every 50-50 ball he challenged and creating a number of excellent opportunities out of the backfield. In a rare slip Saturday, his 66th minute attempted clearance skipped off his head and allowed it through into a box packed with Kansas City players where simple math made a KC equalizer an inevitability.
Abdoulie Mansally (SUB) came on to replace Wingert and shortly took advantage of his athleticism to beat Kansas City's defense down the left side to put the ball in a dangerous position. RSL didn't capitalize, but it was a reminder of both how deep RSL's bench is and of Mansally's past as a ball handler along the front line when he was with DC United.
Tactics: Jason Kreis stayed with the diamond midfield Saturday, posting Yordany Alvarez at holding center back in place of Kyle Beckerman, who is still out on national team duty. Javier Morales retained his position at attacking center mid and Luis Gil paired with Ned Grabavoy on the wings.
Ned Grabavoy was key to RSL's possession dominance, both because of his defense and his offensive mindedness. His work in the second half, particularly after Chris Wingert was sent off, to control the central midfield was key to keeping the game tied long enough to give RSL fans hope they might escape with a tie after going down a man. Sadly, Ike Opara's 97th minute goal put an end to that.
Javier Morales once again powered RSL's attack. With Jeff Attinella struggling with his long distribution and Kansas City's offense making it hard on their defensive line to play the ball out of back, the responsibility fell to Morales to keep possession in the midfield, which he did with tremendous skill and a little bit of wizardry. His free kick in the 56th minute made KC keeper Jimmy Nielsen miss enough for Robbie Findley to find the tipped ball with his head for RSL's go-ahead goal.
Yordany Alvarez found himself matched up with KC's DP, Claudio Bieler and erstwhile national team call-up Grahm Zusi most of the night. Consider Bieler's run on goals and Zusi's quality on the ball, one might have worried about Alvarez, who can be hot and cold. Good thing he was hot Saturday. His decisions were confident and his passing quite good. He's been working hard in training on keeping momentum in the midfield and Saturday showed he's making progress.
Luis Gil seemed to struggle most of the first half. His first cross had tremendous goal potential were it not for Gil's poor execution. His body language after that was a little crestfallen and his boneheaded yellow card in the 37th minute, issued for reaching out and grabbing a Kansas City player from behind, capped a half that Gil will be happy to forget. He was better during the second half, as he was much more confident on the ball and more active in the attack.
Khari Stephenson (SUB) Stephenson was brought on in place of Alvarez and most importantly the quality of defensive soccer in the midfield saw no lag. Unfortunately Stephenson never had the opportunity with a man down to use that cannon of a leg to test KC from distance.
Tactics: Once again, with Alvaro Saborio out playing for his national team in the Gold Cup, Kreis elected for speed, clearly hoping Joao Plata and Robbie Findley could use that speed to get in behind Sporting KC's high line of attack.
Robbie Findley has all the tools. Speed, vision, athleticism and great skill on the ball. But since returning to RSL after two seasons in the EPL, Robbie has struggled to be consistent. At first, it was due to injury, but recently Findley seems to be waiting for the offense to come to him. And in a way, that's what made the difference. Findley found himself in the mouth of the goal on a Javier Morales free kick as Nat Borchers worried Kansas City keeper Jimmy Nielsen enough to flub the punch, and Findley was immediately in the air, adjusting mid-flight to pull his head back and snap the ball into the empty KC net. Strikers need goals to build confidence, and hopefully Saturday's will do just that.
Joao Plata was a menace Saturday night to Kansas City's back line. He had the only truly dangerous shot on goal in the first half and his ability to use his speed and small stature to frustrate the likes of Aurelian Collin and Ike Opara turned out to be RSL's best threat on a night when RSL needed some offensive players interested in countering Kansas City's high line of attack with speedy counterattacks.
Olmes Garcia (SUB) Once again, Garcia was a shot of power in the final 30 minutes. And it nearly changed the game in the 89th minute when he muscled past Collin to streak down the left side and power a shot goal ward that KC keeper Nielsen saved on a tremendous reaction dive.