KANSAS CITY, Kan. – If this really was a preview of the MLS Cup final, the season’s last match is going to be a tight defensive duel.
For just over an hour on Saturday night, it seemed that after a week of breathless buildup, the most-hyped game of the young season would end with a whimper of a scoreless draw.
Aurelien Collin scored off Graham Zusi’s league-leading sixth assist in the 63rd minute, and Sporting Kansas City defeated Real Salt Lake 1-0 to continue the hottest start in club history and the best of any team in the post-shootout era.
With their 200th regular-season win, Sporting become the first team to start 6-0-0 since the LA Galaxy started the 1998 season 9-0, and the first to do it in regulation since the 1996 Galaxy started 12-0.
The Claret and Cobalt (5-2-0) saw their shutout streak end at 267 minutes, while Sporting earned their fifth clean sheet in six tries and ran their league-record string of not allowing a shot on goal to 335 minutes before Jimmy Nielsen made an easy save Nat Borchers’ header from Kyle Beckerman’s free kick in second-half stoppage time.
The referee’s assistant had his flag up on the play, raising hopes that the streak would continue into Wednesday’s game at Vancouver, but referee Kevin Stott waved off his assistant.
The two sides battled back and forth over the first 45 minutes, with Sporting unable to convert on an overwhelming corner-kick advantage and RSL thwarted in any attempt to force a save from Nielsen.
Sporting appeared to go up 1-0 a minute from halftime, when C.J. Sapong put his head to Bobby Convey’s cross and looped it over Nick Rimando, but Sapong was called for a foul on the play.
Controversy seemed Sapong’s lot in the attacking third before the break; in the seventh minute, he tangled with Jamison Olave at the edge of the box and went sprawling, but Stott waved play on to a chorus of boos from the Livestrong Sporting Park faithful.
The non-goal followed the last of Sporting’s nine first-half corner kicks, one shy of the team record for a half. Convey and Zusi both had problems with the ball sailing long, with several kicks rolling harmlessly across the opposite touchline.
The 10th time was a charm, though, thanks to Sporting’s big Frenchman and his skill in the air.
Collin, playing up from his center back spot, slashed in unmarked to nod home Zusi’s corner. It was Collin’s second goal of the year, both coming on headers off set-piece assists from Zusi.
Despite RSL’s difficult troubling Nielsen, they had a chance to pull even in the late going as Sporting ran out of steam. Still, the home side was able to hold off Jason Kreis’ team, as Kansas City defeated RSL at Livestrong Sporting Park for the second straight season.
Julio Cesar, Sporting’s veteran defensive midfielder, was lifted for Paulo Nagamura in the 51st mnute after sustaining what the team said was a strained right hamstring.
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.