Eight games unbeaten in all competitions. Seven games unbeaten in Major League Soccer competition. Three games undefeated record at the brand new LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. But, most importantly a leapfrog from 9th to 6th in the MLS Eastern Conference standings. It was the most unlikely of sources on Saturday night that moved Sporting Kansas City on to all of the aforementioned impressive milestones by beating Vancouver Whitecaps, 2-1.
Second-choice centerback Julio Cesar Santos, playing in his newly found defensive midfield role, capped off Sporting KC's first comeback victory of the 2011 season. Much maligned in his first season with the club, head coach Peter Vermes seems to have found a new home for the 32-year old Brazilian defender. Speaking after the game, Vermes proclaimed that Cesar "was close to being the best player on the field" for Sporting.
"His decisions were excellent, and he had great spacing in between the backline and the midfielders," Vermes went on to say. "And, he's very calm."
It wasn't Cesar's defensive prowess that ended up being his ultimate heroics on the night, though. Cesar found himself in a most unfamiliar position on the field; one far more curious to him that the midfield. Pushed well forward into the box for a Graham Zusi corner kick, it was Omar Bravo that took the over-hit ball and headed it back to the top of the 6-yard box where Cesar, in typical defender fashion, sent a strike directly at Whitecaps goalkeeper Joe Cannon. The ball hit Cannon in between the legs and skidded through for Cesar's first MLS goal.
It was also Bravo that was instrumental in scoring Sporting's first goal of the night seven minutes prior, as well. Always the speculative creator on the team, Bravo worked himself into a fancy one-two with rookie forward CJ Sapong when the former Mexican international played a dummy ball to Sapong who found Bravo continuing his run into the 18-yard box. One slick touch back to the center of the box and all Whitecaps defender Jay DeMerit could do was go to ground and take Bravo with him. Otherwise, it was a near guarantee to splash the back of Cannon's net.
As it was, Bravo beat Cannon on the ensuing penalty and Sporting had drawn level after conceding a delicate header from free kick in the 15th minute. It was Bravo's first goal in the league since opening night, March 16, when he scored twice.
There was far less work to be done by Sporting 'keeper Jimmy Nielsen on this evening than he saw come his way Wednesday night when Sporting squeaked out the ugliest of 0-0 draws away to Philadelphia. The second year Danish 'keeper was only called into action to make three saves in the victory, opposed seven for the draw.
Tense times arose late in the game, though, for Sporting when flashbacks to their utter collapse at Vancouver on April 2 began to creep into the minds of fans and unbiased onlookers alike. After dropping a 3-1 lead in the 92nd minute to draw 3-3, who could really blame them? The closest the expansion Whitecaps came was a 53rd minute shot that forced Nielsen to make one of his three saves on the night.
Whitecaps Designated Player and forward Eric Hassli, the team's leading goalscorer with 6 goals on the year, found himself in far more space than the Sporting defense had any business allowing. A ball played over the top by his own backline forced Sporting defender Aurelien Collin into a very rare mistake. Hassli was all alone against Nielsen with Collin scrambling to get back, but it was the big Dane that made one of his patented kick saves that harken back to his days as a hockey goalie as a kid that thwarted the French talisman.
With a US Open Cup third round game to be played at home on Tuesday night against the Chicago Fire PDL (Premier Development League) squad, the suddenly resurgent Sporting KC have a chance to continue not one or two, but three of their current streaks. Looking further down the road, next Saturday Sporting take back to the road to face the ever-tough at home Portland Timbers. A result of any sort in that arena is not near the guarantee of Tuesday night. Portland are a stout 5-2-1 in Jeld-Wen Field's inaugural MLS campaign.