By CARL SETTERLUND
FOXBOROUGH, Mass – Sporting Kansas City finished the regular season one point behind the New York Red Bulls for the Supporter’s Shield trophy, and Peter Vermes’ side had plenty of reason for optimism Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, having held their opponent, the New England Revolution, scoreless since July 2011.
It was the red-hot Revs who gained the upper hand, though, in the home-and-home Eastern Conference semifinal series as goals by Andy Dorman and Kelyn Rowe 12 minutes apart in the second half sent the host Revolution to a 2-1 win.
“I really don’t think we were thinking about them being able to stop us,” said New England coach Jay Heaps. “We were just thinking about how we needed to play. We needed to step our game up and fortunately we got two tonight. It would have been nicer to have a two-goal advantage but credit them for a great goal.”
It was the fourth straight win for New England, who have now gone unbeaten over seven matches with their backs against the wall late in the regular season.
The series is far from decided though. Kansas City beat New England by a 3-0 result at home on Aug. 10, meaning there’s plenty of possibility for a turnaround.
“I thought we were really good playing away from home,” Vermes said. “We were in and around their box. We didn’t really give anything away to them.”
The 31-year-old Dorman had a tap-in 55 minutes in to end what had been a 557-minute scoreless drought against Sporting KC that stretched across seven matches. The wily Welshman was a recent insertion into the starting lineup, but finished into an open net on the goal line after the ball pin-balled around.
“Did you see the replay?” asked Vermes. “When the shot’s taken, all three guys are offside. They can’t get an unfair advantage on that situation. It’s an easy call.”
Revolution MVP Diego Fagundez had sent in the initial shot from the right side, blasting a laser off backstop Jimmy Nielsen’s right foot. The ball then bounced off Juan Agudelo’s stomach as he closed for a rebound, went back off Nielsen’s hand and over to Dorman for his first MLS goal since July 7, 2007.
Dorman left New England for the Scottish Premier League at the end of the 2007 season, which finished with the Revs’ third straight loss in the MLS Cup.
It’s been a downward spiral since then for the club, which missed the playoffs three years in a row from 2010 to ’12, as an aging roster was almost fully turned over, starting with the signing of a then 15-year-old Fagundez in November 2010.
The Revs and Sporting KC looked destined for their second scoreless draw of the season as both offenses struggled for creativity before Dorman’s opener.
A breakout player this season, Rowe added on in the 67th minute, as Agudelo carried the ball downfield and laid it off to Lee Nguyen in the middle, who subsequently moved it along into open space in the middle of the 18-yard-box.
Rowe hustled to the ball ahead of former Revolution player Seth Sinovic, sliding in to score with a right-footed sweep off the outside of his foot and inside the far left post from 12 yards out to send New England to a short-lived 2-0 advantage.
“I didn’t know if I could get there with my left foot,” said the 21-year-old. “I decided to slide down and hit it with the outside of my right [foot]. I was a little worried. I was looking the whole way. I thought it was going to hit the post and go out.”
“The second goal I thought was just excellent from Lee and Kelyn,” Heaps said. “Great run from Kelyn, he was strong and he found the back corner.”
Sporting KC nearly stole the momentum two minutes later as Aurelien Collin guided it in at the left post off a ball in from Chance Myers, who hit in a bouncer from 20 yards out that deflected off C.J. Sapong as it passed through a crowd.
Myers was denied off a Graham Zusi corner in the 18th minute as Nguyen made a controversial clear off the line, chesting it to the side and avoiding a handball. Collin still appealed to the referee, though, after his follow-up went wide right.
“Zusi plays great balls in on free kicks and corners,” Reis said. “[Myers] put one down into the turf and it skipped up, and that’s why we have guys on the post.”
Heaps said New England varies between one or two field players defending the goal line on corners and decided to play it safe on Saturday and go with two.
Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis was called to action once more in the third minute of second half stoppage time, parrying away a close-range blast by Dominic Dwyer.
“His reflexes are pretty amazing,” Heaps said of his former teammate. “I don’t think there’s been a better goalie in the league.”
The 38-year-old Reis has had a late-career Renaissance after starting the season as the backup to Bobby Shuttleworth. Reis became the first keeper with over 10 decisions to go undefeated, upping his season record to 8-0-4 with the victory on Saturday. He also finished with the best goals against average in MLS.
The two squads will meet again at Sporting Park for the second leg on Wednesday. The winner will face the New York Red Bulls or Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference finals.