KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The road to the MLS Cup in the Eastern Conference goes through Livestrong Sporting Park.
Sporting Kansas City wrapped up its second straight Eastern Conference regular-season championship on Wednesday with a 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Union at Livestrong.
“An MLS season is really long, and we did it from the beginning to the end this year right at the top,” center back Matt Besler said. “That’s an accomplishment that we should all be really proud of and it should give us a lot of confidence going into the playoffs.”
The result also ensured Sporting KC (18-7-9) will have home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs as well as for the MLS Cup against any team other than the San Jose Earthquakes.
Sporting KC, which hasn’t lost since July 28, extended its club record for points in a season (63) and its 12-game unbeaten streak (7-0-5), the best in MLS this season.
It looked as if Sporting KC might have to settle for clinching the title with a draw after Besler fouled Danny Cruz a foot inside the penalty box during the 52nd minute.
Sporting KC had grabbed the lead on Jacob Peterson’s career-high tying fourth goal of the season right before halftime, but the Union leveled the game off a penalty-kick save rebound.
Seeking his club and MLS record-tying 16th shutout of the season, goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen stonewalled Michael Farfan’s penalty try with a dive to his left, but Antoine Hoppenot pounced on the rebound and cracked the equalizer under Nielsen.
Philadelphia (10-17-6) went for the jugular from there as both Jack McInerny and Keon Daniel clanged shots off the right post less than five minutes after Hoppenot’s tally, but Sporting KC eventually reasserted control and found the game-winner.
“We talked at halftime, and we said they were going to come out hard,” said Peterson, who subbed in for injured midfielder Paulo Nagamura in the 33rd minute. “For whatever reason, we didn’t match that, but we bounced back pretty well.”
With less than 10 minutes remaining, forward Kei Kamara collected a turnover forced by Oriol Rosell at midfield and raced uncontested toward the Union goal.
Nearing the penalty box, Kamara, who established a new career high with eight assists, slotted a ball to fellow forward C.J. Sapong, who was unmarked after a looping run from the middle to the right side of Philadelphia’s penalty box.
Notching his ninth goal of the season with a rocket inside the near post, Sapong put an exclamation point on the championship in the 82nd minute.
“It’s stuff that always happens in practice, but we’ve been trying to get it to translate onto the field,” Sapong said.
Sporting KC controlled the first half, but the go-ahead goal didn’t come until Peterson’s sliding effort off a crisp exchange involving Sapong and Kamara.
Sapong earned his second assist of the year when he played a ball out wide for Kamara, who immediately crossed a perfectly weighted ball back to the middle of Philadelphia’s box and inches from sliding defender Carlos Valdes’ outstretched foot.
Peterson hammered home his fourth goal of the season, which matches the career-best mark he set as a rookie in 2006 with Colorado.
“It was a good buildup,” Peterson said. “C.J. held it, Zeus was running off, but it’s Kei’s goal. Both of them, he set them up. … Mine, it was a great ball across. The keeper was coming, but I just had to tuck it away. But all credit goes to Kei.”
After the game, of course, nobody cared who got credit in the title-winning locker room.
“We expect to be here, but we’re still really happy,” Besler said. “It’s a big accomplishment doing it two years in a row. We’ll enjoy it for a couple days, but we want more than this this year for sure.”