KANSAS CITY -- With a 2-0 defeat of the Chicago Fire on Friday night at LiveStrong Sporting Park, Sporting Kansas City clinched a postseason berth and extended its Eastern Conference advantage to five points.
In the 11th minute, midfielder Graham Zusi connected with a right-footer into the right side of the goal from 12 yards out. Attacker Kei Kamara out-ran defender Gonzalo Segares down the right side of the pitch, drawing the Chicago defense toward him before delivering a sharp crossing pass into the middle of the penalty area. Kamara collected his sixth assist of the season, second on the team behind Zusi.
After a defensive mistake by Chicago, Zusi sealed the win with a drive from the top of the penalty area in extra time, just moments before the final whistle. The right-footed blast into the right side of the net was his fifth score of the season.
"They were two great goals by Graham," Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes said. "The first one was world class and the second one put the nail in the coffin. And the first one was a big goal because now they have to come out and change their game."
"It was a great finish by Graham," Kamara said of the first goal. "It wasn't a great ball by me, but Graham made it a great ball because he put a great finish on it."
The victory, Kansas City's first over Chicago since a 2-0 win at Toyota Park in October 2010 and its first home win against the Fire since 2007, gave Sporting (17-7-7) 58 points on the season and expanded its lead over second-place Fire (16-9-5) to five points with just three matches left in the regular season.
"It feels good to change our history against Chicago," Kamara said. "I didn't know it had been that long, since 2007, that we'd beaten them (here). But I have no doubt we could do it. We have such good chemistry here. These guys really know how to communicate, how to play together."
The Fire were denied an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot and snapped a four-game winning streak in which they climbed from fifth place in the Eastern Conference to within two points of the lead. With four games to play, the Fire still enjoy a three-point advantage over both the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United.
"This doesn't change anything," said Fire team captain and midfielder Logan Pause. "We want to be at the top of the table and this was an opportunity, but Sporting got the best of us."
It was Sporting's second victory in its last three games against second-place conference opponents. Kansas City took a 2-0 win at New York on Sept. 19 over the then second-place Red Bulls.
"The commitment from both sides of the ball was tremendous," Vermes said. "Our movement off the ball was excellent. Every time we had service into the box we had a minimum of three guys in the box, and their runs were defined."
"They're a good team," Fire head coach Frank Klopas said. "If we push that first one in, it's a different game. If we take the lead, then they're chasing the game. Instead, we're chasing the game."
Chicago saw precious few scoring opportunities after missing an early chance when Chris Rolfe's one-timer from 20 yards out went just wide of the right post. The Fire had no shots on goal until putting their lone shot on frame in the 68th minute, and Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen was never really challenged in converting his league-leading 15th shutout and his third consecutive white-washing.
"The defensive effort was very good," Vermes said. "It was very good from up top all the way to the back. We didn't allow them anything. They had to push for everything. The attitude of the guys to limit the chances of the other team, I can't say enough about the commitment of these guys to defend, and it's not just doing it here at home. They do it when we're on the road, too. It's a great attribute to have going into the playoffs when you have home-and-home series."
"Our defenders did an awesome job defending," Nielsen said. "We were very smart with the ball and made very few mistakes and even when we did we recovered quickly."
Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson was called upon to make four saves, including a difficult chance in the 36th minute when he parried Kamara's close header into the crossbar to deny Sporting a 2-0 lead.
"This was the first of our goals," Vermes said of reaching the playoffs. "That's another one we can check off. Our next one is to get first place in our conference so we can have home-field advantage in the playoffs, and we want to keep the Supporter Shield within our grasp. I think it's a big thing for us to clinch a playoff spot. We've done that, but we're not going to take our foot off the gas pedal. We're not going to think differently because we've got more to play for."
"We have some goals here at the end of the season," Zusi said. "Not just in August. Tonight we were able to check one of these goals off. No way we're satisfied. We want to win the Eastern Conference, then the Supporter Shield, and then the cup."
Kansas City outshot Chicago 16-9 in front of a stadium record crowd of 21,010, marking its 14th straight sellout.
"That's a playoff atmosphere," Vermes said. "Tonight the fans were at their absolute best. There's no doubt we can continue that through the playoffs."
"These are fun games to play," Pause said. "The city has really embraced this club and it's a fantastic new stadium."
Chicago next faces conference rival Philadelphia on Wednesday in Chicago before traveling to New York for a crucial Eastern Conference matchup with the Red Bulls the following Saturday.
"We still have to play every game one at a time," Pause said. "We know we control our own destiny to get into the playoffs."