Graham Zusi, Kei Kamara, Claudio Bieler.
The list of players Toronto FC had to worry about entering Saturday night’s match against Sporting Kansas City was long.
Third-year striker Soony Saad wasn’t at the top of the list, but he made the difference in Sporting KC’s 3-0 victory, which was played in front 21,126 fans — the largest crowd in Sporting Park history.
“To be fair to the guys, all season we’ve been really competitive in every single game,” said Toronto FC coach Ryan Nelsen. “Our past performances haven’t produced the points we probably really deserve, but tonight was probably the first time we got turned over.”
Saad, who entered the match with one goal in 22 career MLS matches, tallied in the 21st and 50th minutes. He also set in motion Sporting KC’s third goal during the most lopsided loss of the season for TFC (2-9-7).
“We were second best today,” defender Steven Caldwell said. “We take our defeat like men and we accept it. It was a poor performance. Nothing really went right for us, but we’re in a building process. We move forward now to a huge game on Wednesday (at Chivas USA).”
Both teams dodged narrowly avoided going down a goal in the first 20 minutes.
Sporting KC (9-5-6) almost grabbed a lead in the 14th minute when Bieler’s shot from the top of Toronto’s penalty box forced goalkeeper Joe Bendik to make a diving save to his right.
Four minutes later, Sporting KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen stonewalled Jeremy Brockie then scrambled back to his feet and knocked down another Brockie rocket off the rebound.
It was only a matter of time.
Saad broke the ice in the 21st minute when Toronto’s defence failed to pressure him at the top of the penalty box on the left side.
A sliver of daylight opened and Saad tucked a laser-like shot inside the left post for a 1-0 lead.
“We made mistakes we haven’t really been making all year,” Nelsen said. “That’s down to obviously a good team we’re playing against. But we’ve played teams that are just as good and haven’t made those mistakes.”
Bendik made a brilliant kick save against Benny Feilhaber in the 32nd minute, which helped keep the Reds within striking distance at halftime.
During the 49th minute, Bendik denied Bieler’s one-on-one opportunity with another superb kick save, but the dam was about to break.
Saad hammered home a rebound one minute later to make it 2-0.
Zusi, an MLS MVP finalist last season, drew Bendik off his line and blasted a rocket from just inside that box that Toronto’s goalkeeper had to push wide.
Unfortunately for Bendik, the rebound went straight to Saad for an easy put away.
Things went from bad to worse for Toronto, which lost Danny Califf to retirement Friday and Darren O’Dea to a surprise transfer earlier Saturday, in the 56th minute when frustration seemed to boil over.
“The second goal was the killer,” Nelson said. “I always thought, even at 1-0, we would get our chances if we had 11 men. That second goal kind of hurt and then, obviously, the sending off was the nail in the coffin. It was probably damage limitation from then on.”
Midfielder Reggie Lambe was ejected for a reckless tackle from behind against Saad effectively ended the Reds’ comeback hopes having to play the remainder of the match a man down.
Sporting KC tacked on its final goal in the 63rd minute. Saad played a ball into the box for Kamara, whose one-time pass went to Feilhaber.
Feilhaber unselfishly sent the ball along with the outside of his right foot to Bieler, who tallied his team-high ninth goal of the season with a blast into an empty net.