Sporting Kansas City were already determined to make a statement that they could win without three of their stars and several other key players.
And then Brian Bliss turned up the heat even more.
Flush with a midweek victory over Houston in his first match as Columbus' interim manager, Bliss looked ahead to Saturday night's match at Sporting Park and said, “It'll be nice to go in there and punch the bully in the nose.”
Sporting manager Peter Vermes made sure his players saw the quote, and they responded with a dominating 3-0 victory that put Kansas City atop the East – for one night, anyway – and dinged the Crew's hopes of making a late run for the postseason.
“Another team wants to come here and say that they're going to punch us in the face, we are a very physical team,” center back Aurélien Collin told reporters after the match. “And so we are always ready for whoever's coming.”
Sporting showed that from the outset, going after the Crew with a possession-minded attack that yielded a 2-0 lead before halftime and outmuscling the visitors in all three parts of the pitch – and that despite having four players on international duty, one regular starter injured (right back Chance Myers with a groin strain) and star winger Kei Kamara departed for second-division English side Middlesbrough.
“I think everybody on this team is prideful,” said Ike Opara, who started in Matt Besler's usual center back spot on Saturday. “Whoever steps on the field wants to do well. Our organization has done a great job bringing in good players from 1-30 on the roster. Everybody has come in at some point and done well and tonight that shows again.”
“I feel like everyone here stepped up as a team and it really shows the depth that we have,” said forward Soony Saad, who put Sporting up 2-0 with a goal in the 41st minute. “Three different guys scored today and like I said before, it was a complete performance. I think this is really good for us and we keep building character for, hopefully, postseason."
Bliss' comment wasn't the deciding factor in Sporting's dominant performance, Saad said.
“I mean, we try not to look too much into that stuff,” he said. “That's off-the-field talk, and we like to do our talking on the field.”
Still, Bliss didn't do his team any favors.
“I think the guys, the entire team, did a good job of using that as motivation,” said midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who drew the foul that set up Claudio Bieler's seventh-minute penalty kick for a 1-0 lead. “But in the end, I think, we know we're a better team, and playing at home in front of our fans, we needed to prove that – and I think we did that today.”