Colorado 1, Sporting KC 0: Marlon Hairston goal extends Rapids' unbeaten run
The Colorado Rapids kept pace with Western Conference leader FC Dallas thanks to another late goal, their ninth this season in the final 15 minutes, pulling out a 1-0 victory over visiting Sporting Kansas City to extend their MLS-best unbeaten streak to 14 games.
Marlon Hairston added life to a sometimes dreary affair in Commerce City, Colorado, making an immediate impression upon coming off the bench with a half-hour to go and scoring a superb winner in the 78th minute. It made for a most fitting end to the teams’ season series: Colorado swept the three games, with the winning strikes arriving in the 82nd minute in mid-April and 78th in mid-May.
The Rapids (10-2-7), again missing Jermaine Jones, hadn't won since June 18, taking draws in three successive league games -- two of them on the road -- and falling in the U.S. Open Cup. They remained three points behind FC Dallas (12-6-4), a 3-1 winner over Chicago, but have three games in hand.
Sporting (8-10-4), which dropped its second one-goal road decision this week, deserved better. Referee Drew Fischer missed a clear penalty kick in second-half stoppage, letting play continue after Jared Watts kicked Diego Rubio, knocking him to the ground as he spun with the ball to find a shot.
Kansas City is sixth in the West and will fall to seventh if Portland beats visiting Seattle on Sunday afternoon.
Some of the key storylines:
Rapids go long
This wasn't an easy one for Colorado, which withstood K.C.'s enormously high pressure in the first 15 minutes, found the ball after that but struggled to find a flow. It held most of the possession but did little with it, lacking the connections to build into the attacking third and dynamism to create opportunities.
The Rapids found more success in the first half, sort of, with long balls, getting closest to Sporting's net with passes up the left flank or toward the left corner for left back Marc Burch. It never added up to anything significant, and Colorado didn't put a shot on target before the break.
Colorado was better in the second half but not really good enough. Striker Kevin Doyle did well to get onto two good long balls, setting up Dillon Powers for a off-balance shot over the crossbar after collecting a Tim Howard bomb in the 54th minute -- the game's first real chance -- and expertly pulling down a Watts ball over the top before K.C. center back Ike Opara stepped in to kill the chance.
There seemed little affinity among Colorado's attackers, a symptom we've seen on occasion this year. Marco Pappa couldn't guide the attack as desired, and Doyle and Shkelzen Gashi never seemed to be on the same page.
Hairston makes the difference
Fortunately for the Rapids, Hairston came on to play hero.
Colorado had better energy and flow to start the second half, but the speedy Hairston's entrance for Pappa in the 62nd minute brought some electricity to the attack, and it nearly paid off right away. Doyle played a through ball into the box as Hairston raced in from the right, but Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia came well off his line to make the one-on-one stop.
Hairston's running posed a challenge for the tiring Sporting defense, and he came up huge 10 minutes later. He picked off a lazy Ike Opara pass toward midfield in Sporting territory, gave it to Powers before receiving a return pass just above the box, cut inside on Opara and looped a wonderful shot inside the right post.
The goal was Hairston's first of the year and Colorado's sixth winner -- plus three to claim a point -- from the 73rd minute this season.
K.C. outshot the Rapids, 14-9, took eight corner kicks (to three for the home side), and spent more time in Colorado's defensive third than vice-versa. The blown PK call aside, the visitors looked truly dangerous maybe once. And maybe not.
Moments after Powers went high with the game's first chance, Benny Feilhaber carried a ball above a crowded Rapids box, passing three defenders in search for an opening, then struck. It bounded off Dom Dwyer and rolled to the right, where Opara had an open shot from not the best of angles. Best bet: go for it. Opara decided to push the ball back into the middle, toward Dwyer, Jacob Peterson and a whole bunch of defenders. One of those defenders, Watts, booted it from danger.
That was pretty much it for K.C.'s attack, which had scored 10 goals in four games and got off 19 shots -- only two on frame -- in the 1-0 loss Wednesday at Chicago. Sporting wore down after its initial surge, common for away teams at upper elevations, and was again without Graham Zusi, who had been hoping to return from a hamstring injury.
And it was something of a mismatch up front, with Dwyer, just 5-foot-9, going up against the 6-7 Axel Sjoberg and 6-1 Jared Watts. He was stranded, rarely seeing the ball in promising situations. Brad Davis' exit with a calf injury in the 50th minute was of no help.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.