Sporting Kansas City stayed atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 0-0 draw against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
A half-hour later, Sporting KC secured its second straight conference crown when New England stunned the Chicago Fire 1-0 in Foxboro, Mass.
Sporting KC, which leads the Fire by four points with one game remaining, will have home-field advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, but the path to get there Saturday was unusual for manager Peter Vermes’s squad.
New York (15-9-9) controlled the game — controlling possession 64 percent of the match, and sending twice as many open-play crosses into the box – but Sporting KC (17-7-9) had an answer every time and, when the defense didn’t, goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen again proved impenetrable.
“This was a very tough game,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “It was a battle. It was a fight. We needed to come in here and get a result and get ourselves prepared for the playoffs. That right there is what the playoffs will be like, so, yeah, it was a good result.”
During a scrum in the box off a corner by Thierry Henry in the 21st minute, Nielsen wrestled the ball from Tim Cahill’s feet despite falling to the ground during the fracas.
Two minutes later, Nielsen, who picked up his 15th shutout of the season, slapped away a left-footed drive by Dax McCarty with his left paw.
Kenny Cooper got to the rebound, but whiffed on a shot from a tight angle ignoring pleas from wide-open Red Bulls teammates at the far post
Cooper cracked a rocket from 20 yards away in the 41st minute, but Nielsen, who was credited with five saves, swatted it over the crossbar with his fully extended right hand.
Returning to the starting lineup for the first time since a Sept. 19 meeting with the Red Bulls, Aurelien Collin helped Nielsen’s cause in the 47th minute.
Henry drilled a shot from dead center in Sporting KC’s penalty box, which Collin deflected with his, ahem, lower midsection.
Three minutes later, off a Red Bulls shot that was deflected high by Nagamura in the box, Cooper clattered into awkwardly in Nielsen, who was tracking the ball to time his leap for a save.
Two minutes later off a turnover in the left channel, Cahill drew out Sporting KC’s defense and slotted a ball to Henry, who first touch was too heavy and allowed Nielsen to close him down before he could get anything on a shot.
New York’s ensuing corner kick also proved fruitless.
During the 65th minute, Henry deked Sporting KC’s defense with a right-footed shot fake then pulled the ball to his left foot for a blistering shot inside the near post, but Nielsen was again equal to the French international superstar’s brilliance denying the tally with a right-handed stab.
Off the rebound, the Red Bulls tried to re-center the ball back to Henry, but Matt Besler jabbed the ball away — and into Nielsen’s face — to keep the game scoreless.
“Jimmy has been stellar all season,” Vermes said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s goalkeeper of the year. He’s got to be with the way he’s played game in and game out and always kept his cool.”
Lawrence Olum came on for Jacob Peterson in the 78th minute, a signal that Sporting KC was more than content to play for the draw.
“It was a different game,” Vermes said. “I don’t think we came in to sit back and play for the draw, but give them some credit. They played better with movement and other pieces of their game. At the end, we did what we had to do to grab a point.”
The draw ended Sporting KC’s hopes for a Supporter’s Shield, but it did extend a club record for points in a season (60) and extended the club’s unbeaten streak to 11 games (6-0-5).