Sporting Kansas City 1, New York Red Bulls 1 | MLS Match Recap
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – As comebacks go, Ike Opara couldn't have asked for much more out of his first match in almost a year – except for all three points.
Opara, out since late last March as he healed from a chondral defect fracture in his right ankle, scored in his return to competition with Sporting Kansas City – only to see the New York Red Bulls' Lloyd Sam drive home a quick equalizer just four minutes later, forcing a 1-1 draw on Sunday in the season opener for both clubs.
Sporting had to play a man down after the 70th minute, when center back and captain Matt Besler was given his second yellow card for a reckless foul on forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, but still had several chances to win down the stretch.
This was the third straight meeting between the two sides, after the Red Bulls won the 2014 regular-season finale and the Eastern Conference Knockout Round, but Sporting's move to the West this year means it also will be their only encounter during this regular season.
It took only a few minutes after Sunday's opening kickoff for two things to become apparent.
One was that Wright-Phillips, the 2014 Golden Boot winner who torched Sporting for six goals in four matches last season, found himself with far fewer good opportunities without the retired Thierry Henry around to provide cover.
Wright-Phillips didn't get a shot off all night and was flagged three times for offside violations, although he did draw the second yellow on Besler and provide a few other dangerous moments that eventually came to nothing.
The second was that Sporting's announced 4-5-1 formation, with Dom Dwyer up top and offensive-minded players stationed throughout the midfield, quickly became a 4-4-2 with Krisztian Nemeth sliding in next to Dwyer as the second striker. The switch also saw more play up the middle, rather than overlapping runs along the flanks that marked their previous 4-3-3 setup.
But while that resulted in seven shots in the first 29 minutes for the hosts, who took advantage of New York's dangerously high line and consistently found ways to switch the point of attack, they couldn't convert on their early flurry of opportunities and didn't get off another attempt until Opara's goal in the 50th minute.
That advantage only stood until the 54th minute, though, when Sam took a pass from Felipe and curled a blast from 22 yards past diving 'keeper Luis Marin and inside the right post to bring the match level at 1-1.
Kansas City nearly retook the lead five minutes later, but Dwyer scuffed his shot wide from close range after a nice feed from the recently-returned Roger Espinoza.
A late substitution after Besler's ejection – bringing in Erik Palmer-Brown as a second center back so Feilhaber could push forward – nearly let Sporting steal all three points despite New York's man advantage. Dwyer narrowly mis-hit Feilhaber's cross in the 88th minute, though, and Sporting came up empty after Paulo Nagamura's 90th-minute shot was deflected out for a corner.
Sporting return to action on Saturday at FC Dallas, while the Red Bulls are idle until hosting D.C. United on March 22.
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.