Thierry Henry was ejected for violent conduct and Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong each scored goals in the second half to propel Sporting Kansas City to a 2-0 victory against the New York Red Bulls that sealed their spot in the 2011 MLS Playoffs.
With the victory and the Philadelphia Union’s 1-1 draw in Toronto, Sporting moved into first place in the Eastern Conference on 48 points via the goals scored tiebreaker. New York remains in fifth in the East on 43 points with a single game remaining against the Union in which they will now be without Henry.
Henry delivered a knee to the back of Roger Espinoza while the midfielder was on the ground a half hour into the match that dropped New York to 10 men, giving Kansas City an opportunity that they didn’t squander in front of 19,921 fans at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Sporting was the better of the two teams from the very start, coming inches from opening the scoring 50 seconds into the match when Omar Bravo found Aurelien Collin unmarked at the back post following a Graham Zusi corner kick. Bravo’s curling service was inch-perfect, but Collin’s header was just off the mark, skipping past the far post.
Two minutes later, Kansas City was at it again. Chance Myers and Kei Kamara combined on the right flank, and the Sierra Leone international found himself in acres of space with teammates streaming into the penalty area. Kamara picked out Bravo’s run, but his low, driven cross was just out of reach for the Mexican.
Even though New York was decidedly on the back foot, the Red Bulls managed to test Jimmy Nielsen after 11 minutes when Joel Lindpere created something out of nothing. The Estonian dribbled from half field, turning Myers and Collin inside out, and his service bounced around in the area, eventually falling to Dane Richards. Richards put his effort on frame, but Nielsen was there to push it away.
The chances dried up for the next 20 minutes as both teams struggled with their sharpness and passing became decidedly wayward. There was still some drama, however, as Henry was shown his second red card of the season after delivering a knee to Espinoza’s back when the midfield was on the ground. The two players had clashed in the midfield just seconds before, and Kevin Stott judged the play to be violent conduct by the Frenchman.
Up a man and needing a victory to seal a spot in the postseason, Kansas City began throwing numbers forward in a bid to find the opening goal.
Bunbury had three scoring opportunities in the last 15 minutes of the first half – two of which were created by Zusi – but couldn’t put any of the three on frame despite finding himself in prime positions.
Sporting’s best chance may have come in second half stoppage time when Espinoza intercepted a pass and drove to the endline, pausing long enough to pick out Bravo at the far post. Bravo connected squarely, but the header was right into Rost’s chest and cleared out of danger by the Red Bull defense.
Neither side made any changes at the half, and Kansas City came out the same way they did in the opening period. Zusi had the first chance, finding enough space at the top of the area to uncork a left-footed drive that whistled over the crossbar.
Bravo and Kamara both had shots blocked in the next five minutes, but it was Bunbury who finally got the home team on the board in the 57th minute. Zusi’s corner wasn’t properly cleared by New York and found it’s way to Julio Cesar, who cushioned a short-range header to Bunbury’s foot. The 21-year-old made no mistake with the chance, pounding the ball low past Rost on the volley for his ninth goal of the season.
Once again the Red Bulls answered with an opportunity of their own through Lindpere, but Nielsen saved his shot comfortably. Kansas City came right back at the visitors, though, and Kamara had two unmarked headers in dangerous areas that failed to seriously test Rost.
Down a goal and a man, Hans Backe went to his bench in the 70th minute, inserting Juan Agudelo for Luke Rodgers, but it was Sporting manager Peter Vermes who got the best out of his substitutions.
Vermes sent Sapong on for Bravo in the 73rd minute, and the rookie scored the all-important second goal with his very first touch just a minute later. Zusi’s corner kick was headed back toward the six-yard box by Matt Besler, and Sapong turned on a dime and flicked it past Rost to make it 2-0 in favor of the home side.
Kansas City managed to see the match out from there without any issues, claiming their first spot in the playoffs since 2008, while New York must wait another week to decide their fate in Philadelphia.