Sporting Kansas City secured a berth in the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs with a 2-0 victory over the Chicago Fire on Friday at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.
Graham Zusi contributed a goal, the game-winner in the 80th minute, and an assist on Dom Dwyer’s 21st goal of the season in second half stoppage time. With the win, Sporting Kansas City moves into second place in the Eastern Conference and sits three points back of leaders D.C. United.
The reigning MLS Cup champions will enter the postseason for a fourth consecutive year. The team’s seeding will be determined over the course of the final two weeks of the regular season, which see Sporting KC travel to Philadelphia next Saturday and then return home to play host to the New York Red Bulls in the regular season finale on Oct. 26.
Having lost the previous three home matches, Sporting Kansas City was the early aggressor on Friday against a Fire squad mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Benny Feilhaber earned a penalty kick in the 12th minute when Lovel Palmer’s careless challenge brought down the playmaker inside the area for the third penalty won by Feilhaber in all competition in 2014.
Dwyer stepped to the spot — where he was seven for seven across all competition prior to Friday — but sent his shot over the crossbar. The miss was the team’s first from the penalty spot since March 25, 2012, snapping a streak 13 straight successful conversions.
On a night in which Gruenebaum made six saves, four came in a 12-minute span of the first half. The Overland Park, Kan., native started the spree in the 21st minute with a stop on Matt Watson, reacting well to push away the volley after recovering from an aerial challenge.
Less than a minute later, Gruenebaum was called into action again to turn away a shot from Florent Sinama-Pongolle from the ensuing corner. Chicago continued to press forward in search of the game’s opening goal as Quincy Amarikwa tested the nine-year veteran in net with a quickly released shot toward the near post in the 28th minute.
Sporting Kansas City responded on the opposite end with arguably its best build-up of the night, nearly capping it off with a goal fitting of the possession that preceded it. The 19-pass sequence began with a goal kick and after more than a minute of uninterrupted possession, Dwyer played a pass back from the endline that found Feilhaber 15 yards from the net. The U.S. international’s sliding shot deflected off the hand of Johnson and into the post before being smothered in front of the goalline.
The back-and-forth action refused to dissipate as a steady drizzle poured down with a standing-room only crowd on hand at Sporting Park for the 52nd consecutive MLS sellout at the state-of-the-art venue. Antonio Dovale sent his shot narrowly wide of the net in the 31st minute and Gruenebaum came well off his line two minutes later to stop Amarikwa’s 50-yard run at goal.
The second half started in similar fashion with Lawrence Olum sending a shot from 25 yards out blazing over the bar before Chicago managed a single second of possession. Dwyer came close to making amends for his missed penalty with a pair of chances to open the scoring. His curling shot carried just beyond the far post in the 58th minute and a diving header was on frame despite a considerable degree of difficulty only to be saved by Johnson six minutes later.
Chicago survived another scare in the 75th minute when Matt Besler’s clearance from inside his own half brought Johnson sprinting off his line. The ball fell to Zusi at a tight angle and the shot was blocked by Bakary Soumare in front of an empty net.
Zusi — a three-time MLS All-Star — would find the breakthrough 10 minutes from full time. Kevin Ellis and Igor Juliao combined for a give-and-go along the right touchline before Zusi took two touches and unleashed a left-footed strike from 25 yards out that nestled inside the far post.
The 28-year-old now has 22 goals in his six-year MLS career, including eight game-winning goals which ranks sixth most in club history. Sporting KC is 16-0-2 all-time when Zusi scores in MLS competition and his five goals rank second most on the team in 2014. In addition, the goal sees Zusi become the only player in MLS with five or more goals and seven or more assists in each of the last four seasons.
The Fire, who have set an MLS record with 18 draws in 2014, twice threatened to equalize in the game’s late stages courtesy of second-half substitutes. Sanna Nyassi sent a dipping volley inches high of the target in the 83rd minute and Gruenebaum made his best save of the night to kick away Matt Fondy’s effort from close range in the 91st minute.
Dwyer then put the game out of reach with his league-leading fifth headed goal of the season, out-jumping Palmer and directing Zusi’s cross into the back of the net from eight yards out. The Englishman now has 21 goals in 2014, a single-season club record and three shy of Bradley Wright-Phillips in the MLS Golden Boot race. Dwyer scored in all three meetings against Chicago this season.
Gruenebaum recorded his third straight clean sheet and extended his shutout streak to 308 minutes, fifth longest in Major League Soccer this season.
– Story from Sporting KC