Aside from the drumming in the stands of RFK Stadium, there was very little rhythm to the first half of Saturday night’s match between D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City. Only one point separated the teams in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference standings to begin the night, but the sluggish beginning could’ve suggested otherwise.
It wasn’t until the 28th minute that United really dug in. Forward Fabian Espindola took two dribbles with his left foot and chipped a 30-yard floater at the Sporting Kansas City goal, almost baiting goalkeeper Eric Kronberg with the simplicity of his approach. As Kronberg came off his line, the ball cleared his reach, giving Espindola his third goal in as many games.
United made it stand up for a 1-0 win that stretched its home unbeaten streak to seven.
“We ran a lot tonight,” Espindola said. “Tonight it wasn’t our best night, or maybe they were better than us with the ball. But we did a really good job defending and keeping the shutout.”
Saturday’s win could prove pivotal for United, which overtook Sporting Kansas City for the second spot in the Eastern Conference. And although it came against a club that has been decimated by injuries and World Cup commitments, United had to scramble with a series of plays to make it happen.
Espindola, who came off the bench and played just 30 minutes in last week’s loss at New England, embraced his return to the starting lineup. A flu bug has leveled the team the past 10 days, United Coach Ben Olsen said, and Espindola caught the brunt of it Wednesday.
“He’s a warrior, man,” Olsen said of Espindola, who missed two practices earlier this week. “He was throwing up Wednesday, all day. He’s been out for two days and shows up on Friday ready to go.”
Sporting Kansas City, without U.S. national team members Matt Besler and Graham Zusi , received another blow eight minutes into the game when starting defender Aurelien Collin came off limping. He was replaced by the baby-faced Erik Palmer-Brown, who just turned 17 in April and was tasked with facing an aggressive United offense.
Espindola was particularly determined after his team struggled early. Kronberg made the mistake of the night when he came off his line — and Espindola half-heartedly celebrated after his seventh goal of the year. He looked exhausted by the middle stages of the second half; at one point he screamed at a referee and earned a yellow card. A few minutes earlier he had burned the young Palmer-Brown and nearly beat Kronberg with a left-footed strike that rolled just wide of the post.
“I’m very tired. I don’t know if it’s because of [the illness] or Kansas [City], the way they move the ball. I’m so tired right now,” Espindola said. “I wasn’t able to train for two days, and I think that was a big deal.”
It is the first time in eight games that United has beaten the league’s defending champion and the first time in four years it has beaten Sporting Kansas City at RFK. That was United goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s first career start with the club — he had five saves that night despite being unable to hear the national anthem because his head was shaking from uncontrollable nerves.
Hamid had five saves Saturday, too, and although the match lacked the historical drama of the game four years ago, it was shaky at times. Sporting Kansas City was relentlessly up-tempo and blasted 14 shots at Hamid. Wearing two different cleats, he had to improvise a save at the last second after a ball was nearly deflected in during the 77th minute. United dodged another disaster four minutes into stoppage time when Kansas City earned a direct kick from about 40 yards out after an Alex Caskey red card. The ball was cleared, and Hamid exhaled after his second straight home shutout was complete.
“When we look back at this during the week, I think we’re going to look in the mirror and say, ‘We could’ve been a little better on the ball. We could’ve kept possession a little better. We could’ve been a little more dangerous,’ ” Hamid said. “It shows our character that we’re able to keep zeroes and get three points out of these matches.”