Lacking the drama and allure of Western Conference counterpart San Jose, Eastern leader Sporting Kansas City played an efficient, tactically sound match to defeat closest pursuer Chicago, 2-0, Friday night at Livestrong Sporting Park.
In so doing, SKC (17-7-7) clinched a playoff spot and extended its lead atop the conference to five points. If the adage that defense wins championships plays itself out this season, it has ample evidence with league-best totals in shutouts (14) and goals allowed (25).
Yet Coach Peter Vermes hasn't been unwilling to tinker with that formidable defense. SKC posted the shutout without defender Aurelien Collin, who was left on the bench for the second straight match though he's healthy and available. Collin went the full 90 Sept. 19 when SKC ended New York's home unbeaten streak with a convincing 2-0 victory, but Lawrence Olum got the start last week in a 0-0 tie in Montreal and he got the start in place of Collin again Friday.
In his stead, his regular partner, Matt Besler played in a fluid system that provided a solid wall of defenders yet also offered support for the midfield. Olum played both centerback and right back; when he drifted outside, right back Chance Myers floated forward often to play more as a right mid, and Julio Cesar -- who has played occasionally in the back line -- dropped back alongside Besler. If an attack came down his side of the field, Myers would track back to get into tackles and scrap away loose balls.
On the opposite flank, left back Seth Sinovic was also active, which gave left wing Graham Zusi, who scored both goals, freedom to pull out wide or cut inside, which he did superbly to score in the 11th minute with a first-time finish in front of goal.
Chicago, lacking central midfielder Pavel Pardo, never solved this deployment. His replacement, Alex, couldn't close down SKC's attackers and struggled to contribute offensively. He came off in the 61st minute when Coach Frank Klopas brought on Dominic Oduro, but Oduro couldn't connect with starting forwardsSherjill MacDonald and Chris Rolfe, nor break through on his own.
Julio Cesar wisely picked his times to drop into the back line. While in midfield the presence of Meyers enabled SKC to offset the numerical advantage the Fire should have enjoyed playing against a 4-3-3 team. Seldom could it get Patrick Nyarko isolated one-v-one despite using him on both flanks, and he appeared sluggish after taking an early hit as SKC pressed the Fire hard and often. Nyarko suffered five fouls before being replaced in the 71st minute.
DestroyerPaulo Nagamura, whose third foul earned him a caution in the 70th minute, led an efficient suppression of Rolfe, who rarely got into threatening positions with the time and space he needed to use his guile and touch. He pulled the best of his three chances wide in the first half and labored without reward in the second 45 minutes.
Defender Gonzalo Segares received his second caution in second-half stoppage time and Klopas was also sent off, apparently for grabbing the fourth official while arguing over the decision to expel Segares. The apparent leniency of referee Chris Penso, particularly regarding the fouling of Nyarko, didn't sit well with the Fire players, but a 16-9 SKC edge in shots and possession advantage of 59.4 percent to 40.6 indicated the Fire's problems extended beyond concerns about the officiating.
SKC is three points behind overall leader San Jose (18-6-7), which rallied in typical heart-stopping fashion Saturday night to tie FC Dallas, 3-3, with a Steven Lenhart goal in the 93rd minute. San Jose is far and away the league scoring leader with 65 goals, yet it has also allowed as many goals (39) as SKC has scored. Still, the offensive numbers are staggering: combined, the Quakes top three scorers -- Chris Wondolowski (22), Alan Gordon (13), and Lenhart (10) -- have outscored SKC, as well as all but three other MLS teams. Only the Red Bulls, D.C. United, and the Galaxy have scored more goals than the San Jose trio; Seattle has the same total of 45.
Neither leader has clinched its conference title and both face stiff resistance to reach MLS Cup. San Jose, which finished seventh in the West last season, is the surprise team of 2012. SKC has already exceeded the 51 points it compiled last year while winning the Eastern Conference, and it's also clearly established itself as a stingy team imbued with depth and flexibility.