HARRISON, N.J. – The visitors to Red Bull Arena on Wednesday night knew exactly how many home games New York had played this season without suffering a defeat.
Instead of shirking away from the challenge of ending that 13-game run, they vowed to harass and press the Red Bulls until the streak crumbled.
"We came out here," Sporting Kansas City forward Kei Kamara said after he scored the second goal in his side's 2-0 victory on Wednesday night. "It felt right. We really want to interrupt their whole record, their play and not give them any time. It worked out perfect."
Time proved a necessity New York could not manufacture until it was too late. It was, on the whole, the most crucial battle waged all evening. Both coaches grasped the importance of that extra moment on the ball prior to the match and set their teams out accordingly.
Sporting coach Peter Vermes deployed his usual 4-3-3 formation and hoped his team would relish the opportunity afforded by playing against a team that wouldn't sit in and try to break on the counter. There were no major changes to the preferred personnel or to the usual high pressure tactics, but Vermes did ask Kamara to spend most of his time on the right side to run at makeshift fullback Wilman Conde instead of flipping sides with Graham Zusi as often as he usually does.
New York manager Hans Backe faced a more difficult conundrum because he needed to find a way to mitigate the effects of Sporting's pace and pressure. Backe couldn't do much about the Red Bulls' genuine dearth of speed, but he did try to bolster the work in possession by naming Rafael Márquez and Teemu Tainio in central midfield and shunting Dax McCarty out to the right yet again as part of a 4-4-1-1 setup. McCarty and Joel Lindpere pinched toward the middle from the weak side at points to increase the available numbers in that department to combat Sporting's active midfield three of Júlio César, Roger Espinoza and Paulo Nagamura.
"When you play against teams like Kansas, you need possession," Backe explained. "You need players up front to keep hold of the ball. You need midfielders who can get hold of the ball to have more possession. If you get too hectic, they are one of the better teams if you're talking about pressure on the ball. They force you to kick it. That's not our game."
It was on this particular evening. Sporting applied pressure on the back four from the opening whistle, limited the time and space granted to Márquez and unsettled the Red Bulls in possession. New York couldn't keep the ball comfortably or start passing sequences out of the back under this level of duress. A simple pattern emerged – Sporting applied pressure wisely to force either a futile long diagonal ball into the channels or a turnover in a poor spot to win the ball – as the crucial opening period unfolded.
"From the opening whistle, we came here to play," Vermes said. "We weren't going to sit in, drop 11 guys into a 30-yard space and try to play that way. We talked about – right from the get go – trying to disrupt their rhythm."
The exertions accomplished that objective and yielded two goals inside the first 20 minutes. Both tallies exposed the Red Bulls' lingering issues on set pieces, but the opener owed more to the intelligent pressure applied in the attacking third to prompt the opportunity. Márquez hit a poor pass in his defensive zone to concede possession on the edge of the penalty area and Tainio gave away a silly, if fairly soft, foul. Those two mistakes cost New York dearly after Zusi hit the resulting free kick off the bar and C.J. Sapong turned neatly to slot home after 12 minutes. The second goal came seven minutes later from an inviting Zusi corner kick and a powerful Kamara header.
The early success urged Sporting to continue its initial approach and maintain its pressure. The visitors may have conceded possession a bit more than they would have liked and tempered their attacking forays at points, but they still posed problems on the counter and they still pressed ardently enough to frustrate the Red Bulls as they tried to connect passes into and through the middle third.
"They are an intense team," Backe said. "The front three are very, very aggressive to close down. I still think we should have had more confidence to play it out from the back four or the back three. It looked like we didn't ask for the ball enough. You need to be more confident coming out from the back four because, otherwise, you will just end up kicking it."
It took the Red Bulls more than a half adjust to the pressure and find some foothold in the match. By that point, the affair looked done and dusted as Sporting kept its lines compact despite Backe's formation switch (diamond midfield to start the second half) and prompted the Red Bulls to play too directly toward Tim Cahill (anonymous as a service-deprived withdrawn forward) and second-half substitute Kenny Cooper. New York's modest improvement after the interval – unsurprisingly sparked by sharper work on the ball – failed to rescue the match.
A result of any sort would have flattered New York on the night. Sporting grabbed control of the proceedings from the outset and retained its grip on the game for the duration against a Red Bulls outfit that floundered mightily. Backe must devise a new approach – perhaps one that includes more mobility in central midfield and less reliance on long balls out of the back – to mitigate Sporting's strengths when the two teams meet again at Red Bull Arena on Oct. 20.
No such concerns trouble Sporting at the moment after the victory increased the gap over second-placed Chicago to four points. There are arduous moments ahead as this campaign winds to a close, but this comprehensive performance – and a first victory for a road team at Red Bull Arena this season – deserves a bit of reflection before the toil continues.
"It's a massive result for us on the road, especially with how tight we are in terms of points," Vermes said. "We'll try to keep putting the pressure [to pick up points] on everybody else."
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