The final whistle came as a relief for the Union on Thursday night as players dropped to their knees in exhaustion after 97 minutes of play in the Kansas City heat.
Despite being dominated across the board in possession, shots and passing, the team survived a road game against Western Conference leader Sporting Kansas City in a 1-1 tie. The game afforded the Union a point, but it also served as a learning experience for a team struggling to create first-half momentum.
"They put us under a lot of pressure and we didn't deal with it," head coach Jim Curtin said. "We had a plan entering the game that we just didn't execute. We dribbled when we should've passed, and we passed when we should've dribbled. They punished us for it."
The night was highlighted by the team's defensive performance, buoyed by six saves from goalkeeper John McCarthy. Thursday marked McCarthy's first regular-season start of the season and only the 13th of his career. He had stepped up twice already for the Union this season in Open Cup matches when Andre Blake was unavailable or injured.
His performance in goal kept the Union in the game in an offensively stagnant first half, as he fended off three shots on goal. After diving awkwardly to kick a ball away in one-on-one defense in the 39th minute, McCarthy stayed on the ground, clutching his lower back. Despite the injury, he stayed in goal for the rest of the game, protecting the Union from a barrage of strikes.
"He kept us in the game," Curtin said. "There's a big reason why we call on him. It's not easy to fill Andre's position, but he stepped up into it."
Sporting K.C. dominated the pace of play, possessing the ball for 64 percent of the time. In those possessions, the team took 14 corners and leveled 19 shots. The Union took eight shots in total, with only two coming on frame. The offensive imbalance left the team playing on its heels for most of the game, fending off Sporting K.C. with all 11 players in the defensive half of the field.
Any game on the road in Kansas City is a challenge — the team has yet to lose on its home field and recorded only three home ties before Thursday. But the night reflected the Union's struggle of creating first-half opportunities without the presence of star midfielder Alejandro Bedoya.
"We have to recognize we're a team in the sense of the word," Curtin said. "When we're not all on the same page, we become a very ordinary team. We don't have the superstar player that's just going to bail us out on a night where we're not all at our sharpest."
The second half featured brief sparks of offensive life, with the Union dominating small stretches of possession. A sharp run-through by C.J. Sapong in the 69th minute saved the team from a loss, as Sapong was tackled from behind and awarded a penalty kick.
Roland Alberg buried the shot, leveling the score in an otherwise uneven match.
The Union are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. With 23 points, the team is five points behind the Columbus Crew, the lowest team above the red line of playoff positioning.
Heading into a mid-season break, Curtin thinks his team is positioned well to build toward playoff contention. But the Union must create a more balanced attack that can compete rather than survive in close matches.
"We need to have guys step up in big games, because we're going to have big games down the stretch," Curtin said. "We have some guys that are playing confidently. We're in a good spot considering where we started the year. I think we've shown we can play with anyone so long as we hold ourselves to that level."