If Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes' strategy heading into Saturday night's match against the New York Red Bulls was to play for a draw, his team executed his plan to perfection.
New York were the aggressors all match long in a 0-0 draw at Red Bull Arena, but Sporting KC's defense, most notably a stellar performance from Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, were able to thwart New York's attack and earn Kansas City a point heading into the final game of the MLS regular season.
Instead, Sporting KC will have to wait until they face off against the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday to see if they can finish atop the East for the second straight year.
DC United were able to score a late goal against the Crew to win 3-2 Saturday night and move within three points of Kansas City in the Eastern Conference table.
With MLS changing the tie-breaker rule from "goal differential" to "goals scored," United still have a chance to finish in first place in the East if Sporting Kansas City fall to Philadelphia.
DC United have scored 50 total goals in 2012, twelve more than Sporting Kansas City (40). Had the rules not changed in August of this year, Sporting Kansas City would have all but clinched first place with the 0-0 draw against New York. Kansas City currently have a +14 goal differential against their opposition, while DC United stand at +10.
Sporting Kansas City looked disjointed for much of the match against the Red Bulls Saturday night, some of which clearly had to do with the absence of midfielder Roger Espinoza, who suffered an ankle injury in Kansas City's last match against the Columbus Crew on October 7th.
With Espinoza out for at least another week or longer, Vermes opted to start Graham Zusi in the Sporting KC midfielder along with Julio Cesar and Paulo Nagamura. Jacob Peterson filled in on the wing where Zusi has become a mainstay during the latter part of the 2012 season.
If anyone doubted just how important Espinoza has been for Sporting KC this season, Saturday night's match should be an eye-opener.
Kansas City lost the battle in the midfield as New York, most notably Thierry Henry and Lloyd Sam, caused Sporting KC trouble time and time again.
If not for a wonderful performance from Nielsen, who earned his 15th clean sheet of the 2012 season, Sporting may have headed home empty-handed.
Nielsen made five saves Saturday night, perhaps none of them more impressive than in the 65th minute when Nielsen was able to deflect a shot by Henry, who faked out the Sporting KC defense to free up space on the left side of the penalty area. Nielsen was able to haul in Henry's cross after Nielsen's initial save deflected back out to the New York forward.
It would be one of those nights for Sporting KC's captain, as he put in another Man of the Match performance, and may have also solidified his standing in regards to the "MLS Goalkeeper of the Year" award.
Vermes sang his goalkeeper's praises after the match:
"I think he's got to be a slam dunk for Goalkeeper of the Year. He's had so many shutouts, so many great performances, been so consistent from Game 1 all the way through now to Game 33. He's just a big-time goalkeeper."
For their part, the Red Bulls were able to clinch a playoff berth with the draw, a deserved outcome given their dominance for the majority of Saturday night's match.
Sporting Kansas City currently sit at the top of the Eastern Conference with 60 points, three points clear of DC United, and four clear of the Chicago Fire, who fell 1-0 to the New England Revolution.
Kansas City return home to Livestrong Sporting Park for the regular season finale on Wednesday, October 24th against the Philadelphia Union. That match will kick off at 7:30 CDT.
Sporting KC only need a draw against the Union to clinch the East, but one would have to imagine that Peter Vermes will have his team gunning for all three points to close out the regular season on a high note.