After winning the MLS Cup last December, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes traveled across the world as part of a scouting trip. Along the way, he sought advice from international coaches regarding the biggest difficulty in defending a championship.
The answer, he learned, was nearly unanimous.
“The majority of them always say it’s maintaining focus and hunger within the group over the course of the entire season,” Vermes said.
The focus was absent on a hot, humid Saturday night. As a result, the defending champions are looking up in the Eastern Conference standings.
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D.C. United charged into Sporting Park on Saturday and left as the new Eastern Conference leaders following a 3-0 victory.
D.C. United scored three goals in the opening half, handing Sporting KC only its second home loss of the season in 13 matches. It took a one-point lead over Sporting KC in the standings.
Sporting KC (12-7-6) had not allowed three goals in an MLS match this season — and it was the only team in the league able to make that claim.
That changed Saturday. In a hurry.
D.C. United (13-7-4) scored its three goals in less than an eight-minute span — an onslaught that was as surprising as it was impressive in front of 19,963 fans at Sporting Park.
After Sporting KC controlled the pace of play for the opening 20 minutes, United forward Fabian Espindola scooted a shot from one corner of the goalkeeper box inside the opposite post, beating 21-year-old keeper Jon Kempin.
Kempin started his second straight MLS match in place of injured Andy Gruenebaum.
Chris Rolfe extended the lead to 2-0 only four minutes later. After staying onside during his run toward goal, Rolfe collected a pass from Luis Silva and slid a shot past a drawn-out Kempin. Silva also assisted on the first goal.
D.C. wasn’t done. The multi-goal buffer allowed it to further drop back its pressure and rely on the counter-attack.
The latter produced the third goal. Perry Kitchen took advantage of another high back line from Sporting KC to break open for a one-on-one with Kempin. He won the battle.
Content with its three-goal lead, D.C. bunkered numbers into its own half and successfully limited Sporting’s close-range scoring opportunities after halftime.
Sporting KC’s best chances came from outside the goalkeeper box. Graham Zusi clanked a 25-yard shot off the crossbar in the 60th minute, and Soony Saad missed the post by less than a foot from 20 yards out only two minutes later.
D.C. United played without Eddie Johnson, a former Kansas City Wizards forward. Johnson was serving the second game of a two-game suspension for kicking the ball at Real Salt Lake defender Carlos Salcedo while Salcedo was laying on the ground.
Sporting KC remained without Gruenebaum (shoulder) and midfielder Paulo Nagamura (ankle), though Vermes said Friday both players are nearing returns to the field.
Sporting Kansas City returns to action Friday, when it will play host to Houston. The match will be nationally televised on NBC Sports. Sporting Park is expected to welcome its 50th consecutive MLS sellout.