Sporting Kansas City moved into third place in the Western Conference with a 1-0 road win at the Portland Timbers on Saturday night thanks to Krisztian Nemeth's stunning strike in the 83rd minute and six saves from Tim Melia in the shutout. The victory puts Sporting KC on the brink of qualifying for the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs with three games remaining in the regular season.
JACK IN THE BOX: The day after Sporting KC has four or more shots on goal, receive a free breakfast biscuit sandwich with any purchase at Jack in the Box locations in the Kansas City area.
Three days after winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship via a penalty shootout in Philadelphia, Sporting KC crossed the country to play the club's fourth game in an 11-day span and did so in a manner nearly as dramatic as the Cup final. Nemeth scored the vital game-tying goal at mid-week and added another highlight-reel moment on Saturday, receiving the ball inside midfield and embarking on a 50-yard run in which he eluded three Timbers defenders before burying his shot into the back of the net past Adam Kwarasey.
Nemeth has now scored 15 goals in all competitions this season, though arguably none as impressive as his heroics at Providence Park. Moreover, his 22 combined goals and assists across all competitions in 2015 are most by a newcomer in club history since the inaugural 1996 season.
Like Nemeth, Graham Zusi came off the bench on Saturday and made his 200th appearance for the club in all competitions. He earned the assist on Nemeth's goal - after also assisting the Hungarian's goal on Wednesday - and in doing so passed Chris Klein for second on the club's all-time assists chart across all competitions with 55 in his career.
The Timbers, who fell out of playoff position with the defeat, entered the match unbeaten in their last 14 games at home against conference foes until Sporting KC walked away with all three points. Manager Peter Vermes led his side to becoming the only road team to win and the only defense to record a clean sheet through the first seven games of MLS Week 31.
The season series had seen a pair of scoreless stalemates between Sporting KC and Portland earlier in the year and for 82 minutes, a third straight 0-0 draw was in the works.
Sporting Kansas City's only shot on goal of the first half came in the 14th minute from the foot of 21-year-old Jordi Quintilla. After Bernardo Anor drew a free kick from 30 yards out in the central channel, Quintilla's left-footed shot on the ensuing set piece was smothered by Portland goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.
On the opposite end, the Timbers gained the upper hand offensively in the final 15 minutes of a scoreless first half and forced three saves by Tim Melia. In the 27th minute, Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi combined for a give-and-go inside the penalty area that allowed Valeri to send a well-struck shot that was met by Melia with a diving stop to his left.
Darlington Nagbe took his turn to test Melia in the 35th minute, hitting a first-time shot with the outside of his right foot from just beyond the 18-yard box that was safely held by Melia. Nagbe was active again in the 44th minute when his shot was blocked by Matt Besler's sliding challenge. The rebound fell kindly for Valeri, whose opportunistic strike was pushed wide by Melia at the near post.
The Sporting KC goalkeeper, in his first season with the club, was coming off a seven-save performance in the U.S. Open Cup Final on Wednesday and added six more saves to his season tally in the second half on Saturday. Melia was properly positioned for a simple save on Nagbe's effort from distance in the 53rd minute and sparked a spell of possession for Sporting KC that culminated with Anor's header carrying just over the crossbar upon after a chipped cross from Graham Zusi.
Zusi, who came off the bench as a halftime substitution, next set up Saad Abdul-Salaam on a corner kick in the 61st minute. The 6'4 outside back - one of three rookie draft picks to start for Sporting KC on Saturday, a first for the club since 2007 - directed a shot on target that bounced into the arms of Kwarasey.
Sporting KC would insert Krisztian Nemeth into the match in the 73rd minute but not before Portland made an attacking-minded move of their own. Designated Player Lucas Melano entered and within minutes was poised to give the home side a lead in the 65th minute if not for a superb foot save from Melia.
The 29-year-old goalkeeper - one of three nominees for Sporting KC's Newcomer of the Year award - continued to make his case with a 71st minute save on Nagbe. The former Hermann Trophy winner surged forward on the counter attack and let loose a powerful attempt from the right corner of the penalty area in what would be Portland's final shot on goal of the game.
Sporting Kansas City would respond with the club's best scoring chance of the match to that point in the 72nd minute. Mikey Lopez was looking for his first MLS goal with a half-volley from 18 yards out that was pushed over the bar with a one-handed save by Kwarasey.
Nemeth would enter the match prior to the subsequent corner kick and 10 minutes later made his mark. Quintilla tackled the ball away from Valeri to win possession for Sporting KC and Nemeth would do the rest, twice cutting past Diego Chara and then beating Nat Borchers before placing his shot inside the far post. By the time he himself laying celebrating on the ground, he had left four different opponents on the ground too in the wake of his dribbling display and fantastic finish.
Down a goal, Portland called upon Maximiliano Urruti as their final sub and the tactical change nearly paid off immediately. The Argentine took a touch toward net and released a potential game-tying shot that skipped inches past the far post in the 84th minute. The missed opportunity - the team's final noteworthy scoring chance of the match - extended the Timbers scoreless streak against Sporting KC to 392 minutes, dating back to 2013.
Sporting Kansas City will be off from MLS action until Friday, Oct. 16 when their final road game of the regular season takes them to San Jose. In the interim, four Sporting Kansas City players will depart for international duty. Besler and Zusi were named to the U.S. Men's National Team on Saturday for the CONCACAF Cup, while Nemeth will continue UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying with Hungary and Marcel de Jong will join Canada for an international friendly against Ghana.