HARRISON, N.J. – Sporting KC not only maintained first place in the Eastern Conference, it showed the New York Red Bulls they have a long way to go to be as good.
C.J. Sapong and Kei Kamara scored first-half goals, Graham Zusi got his MLS-best 14th assist and Sporting KC won the battle for first place and extended its unbeaten streak to seven games with a 2-0 victory over the Red Bulls on Wednesday night.
"This is huge," Kamara said. "Getting the win on the road is definitely big, but getting a win on the road to New York, which was undefeated at home, is something that puts a statement to our season," Kamara said after Sporting KC (16-7-6) opened a four-point lead over second-place Chicago and a five-point bulge over third-place New York (14-8-7) with five games left in the regular season.
The bottom line was that coach Peter Vermes' team was just better than the Red Bulls, who didn't generate much offense until late when they loaded their lineup with offensive players.
Even then, the chances New York got weren't very good.
"Of course I'm surprised," Red Bulls coach Hans Backe said. "It's a big game. We're fighting to be No. 1 and win, but they're No. 1."
It was a typical Red Bulls game. They fell behind early and this time they couldn't come back in losing at Red Bull Arena for the first time in 14 games (10-1-3) this season.
"If you go and play against Kansas City and you are 2-nil down after 20 minutes, it's hard," Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry said.
Sporting KC came into the game with the MLS' best defense (25 goals allowed), and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen didn't have to make his first save until the 56th minute in recording his league-best 12th shutout.
"Not only the defenders, but my team in front of me, made my job pretty easy today," said Nielsen, who finished with four saves.
The Red Bulls would have moved into first place in the conference with a win, and the remarkable thing about the game was that only 10,287 fans showed up for the match.
In many ways, the Red Bulls didn't show up either.
"The way I look at it, we came from the opening whistle," Vermes said. "We came here to play. We weren't going to sit in and drop 11 guys in a 30-yard space and try to play that way. We talked about trying to disrupt their rhythm from the get-go."
Both Sporting KC goals came off set pieces.
Sapong, who gave Sporting KC a 1-1 tie with a goal in injury time against Houston on Friday night, put his team ahead in the 12th minute. Zusi's free kick from just outside the penalty box slammed off the crossbar. Defenseman Matt Besler got the rebound and slid the ball forward to Sapong, who turned and beat goalkeeper Bill Gaudette with a shot inside the post for his seventh goal.
"I just knew there was a lot of bodies in the box," Sapong said. "Those are the types of shots that are tough for goalies. The ball was in front of me so I know he didn't see it until I shot it. It actually went through somebody's legs and slipped in."
Kamara, whose own goal gave the Red Bulls a 1-1 draw in Kansas City on Aug. 26, scored his team-high 11th goal seven minutes later. Zusi took a corner kick and an unmarked Kamara scored on a header after New York defender Wilman Conde didn't cover him.
The Red Bulls' best scoring chances came in the final 15 minutes. Second-half substitute Lloyd Sam got off a weak shot after coming up with a loose ball in the box, while Nielsen had a make a diving save on substitute Sebastien Le Toux minutes later. New York also had a chance in injury time off a scramble but missed the net.
There was an incident near at the end of the game where Henry and Kamara inadvertently hit heads as the teams lined up for a free kick. There was some pushing and shoving before things calmed down.
The MLS has put a greater important on finishing with the most points in the regular season. The team with the most points that reaches the championship game will host it.
"To score two goals here and get a shutout, it's a massive result for us, especially how tight we are in regards to points," Vermes said. "We'll try to keep the pressure on everybody else."