ATLANTA – Turns out, the showdown between the two leading teams in Major League Soccer was not a fair fight.
Atlanta went a man down in the first half – losing its starting goalkeeper, no less – and Sporting Kansas City took advantage of the extra player to score a pair of second-half goals, snapping United's eight-game unbeaten streak with a 2-0 victory Wednesday night.
Daniel Salloi and Gerso Fernandes scored for Kansas City, while keeper Tim Melia came up with several huge saves to preserve the victory. Sporting has only one loss in its last 10 games, pulling one point ahead of United atop the overall MLS standings though Atlanta has played one less game.
It was the first time Atlanta has been shut out at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where another big crowd (44,696) turned out to watch the 2-year-old team that has quickly become one of the top squads in MLS.
"We were up a man for long period of the game," Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. "They're a really, really good team."
In what was billed as an early season preview of a possible MLS Cup matchup in December, Atlanta United played the last 56 minutes a man down after keeper Brad Guzan was given a red card for taking out Kansas City's Khiry Shelton just outside the penalty area as he broke in all alone . Rookie Paul Christensen, an emergency signee filling in for injured backup Alec Kann, made a big save shortly after entering for his MLS debut but couldn't hold off Sporting.
"When we were playing 11 vs. 11, I thought we were better than Kansas City," United coach Gerardo Martino said through a translator.
While Atlanta was tight-lipped about the red card, Vermes said it was the proper call.
"They deserved to have the goalkeeper thrown out," he said. "That was a bad situation on his part."
In the 67th minute, Salloi curled a shot from beyond the box to beat a diving Christensen just inside the right post. In the closing minutes, with United pressing forward in search of the tying goal, Fernandes took a long pass and went in all alone on Christensen, deking out the 22-year-old keeper and guiding the clinching goal into an open net.
Melia made eight saves, including a pair of acrobatic stops on free-kick specialist Kevin Kratz that could've allowed United to escape with a point. Finishing off the clean sheet, Melia got a hand on Miguel Almiron's last-gasp attempt, knocking the ball off the post and leaping on top of the loose ball.
Almiron walked away shaking his head, and the referee blew the whistle to end the game. Melia was swarmed by his teammates, celebrating his brilliant performance.
"That's why he was the goalkeeper of the year last season," Atlanta's Jeff Larentowicz said. "We were all over them."
United went a man down in the 34th minute. After Michael Parkhurst missed a tackle, Shelton streaked toward the net and Guzan darted off his line to challenge. But the keeper got there a split-second too late, clipping Shelton's left ankle with his right foot to send the forward flying through the air.
The referee immediately brought out the red card, meaning United would have to go the rest of the way without its No. 1 keeper. Atlanta was already short-handed at that position, having brought up Christensen from Atlanta United 2 in the second-tier United Soccer League when Kann couldn't suit up because of a knee injury.
It was the first card of Guzan's MLS career, and means he'll also miss United's next game Sunday at Orlando.
The 33-year-old keeper couldn't ever remember getting ejected from a game.
"I stop my momentum thinking (Parkhurst) will win the ball when he slides," Guzan said. "He just misses it, and that causes me to hesitate. I just miss it and take him down. It is what it is."
Right away, Christensen faced a dangerous free kick from the top of the box but the shot curled harmlessly wide of the post. Early in the second half, Christensen came up huge when Johnny Russell raced past a defender to collect a pass in the area. Christensen darted aggressively off his line and blocked the left-footed blast with his stomach .
Until Guzan's flagrant foul, United had largely controlled play in the opening half.
Josef Martinez appeared to put the home side ahead in the sixth minute after collecting a deflected pass in front of the goal, losing defender Ike Opara with a nifty move to his left foot and ripping a shot past Melia. But Martinez was clearly offside, leading to a video review that overturned the goal.