KANSAS CITY -- Eddie Johnson became the first player in MLS history to register back-to-back hat tricks Saturday, sending the Kansas City Wizards to the top of Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference in a 3-2 win against the visiting New York Red Bulls.
Johnson, playing in his last match before departing for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, scored all of his goals in the second half of the top-of-the-table match. In doing so, he took over the league lead in goals with nine. It was a dramatic win for the Wizards against a Red Bulls side that, coming into the match, had allowed just four goals on the season and had yet to lose on the road.
The Wizards' win, assisted by a red card shown to Red Bulls midfielder Clint Mathis, put them at 19 points, two ahead of the Red Bulls and one ahead of the New England Revolution, who tied Real Salt Lake at home Saturday.
The Wizards starting lineup featured a fully stocked backline one week after the entire unit, save right back Jack Jewsbury, missed Kansas City's 4-3 win at New England. The Red Bulls welcomed back former U.S. international Claudio Reyna to their lineup.
The match started like a top-of-the-table contest should -- with plenty of chances. Off a corner earned by Johnson in the second minute, Carlos Marinelli served a deadly ball in the box that both Sasha Victorine and Jimmy Conrad had a crack at. Victorine's powerful header went straight to New York goalkeeper Jon Conway, who blocked but couldn't hold it. Conrad's follow went over the bar.
Despite another strong Wizards chance four minutes later, the Red Bulls came back with a vengeance in the eighth minute. At the upper right corner of the box, Reyna chipped for John Wolyniec positioned centrally in the box. His flick found an unmarked Juan Pablo Angel at the far post and Angel's sliding volley found the back of Kevin Hartman's net to give New York the lead and put pressure on the home side.
Right winger Davy Arnaud crossed for and found reigning MLS Player of the Week Johnson open in the box in the 16th minute. Johnson bolted a header that forced goalkeeper Conway the wrong way, but Conway's trailing feet made fortunate contact and took away the would-be equalizer.
Though the Red Bulls looked the sharper side midway through the half, things would look up for Wizards in the 35th minute. First, Marinelli played a ball into space behind the Red Bulls backline for a running Johnson, who rounded Conway and shot for goal. However, three New York defenders had tracked back and ushered the ball away.
Then, hassled by Kansas City midfielder Kerry Zavagnin near midfield while trying to keep possession, Clint Mathis backed into and then elbowed Zavagnin in the neck area. Referee Jair Marrufo arrived quickly on the scene and sent Mathis to the locker room.
Wizards attack, relentless after Mathis' sending-off, leveled the match nearly immediately after the break. Johnson gathered a ball lofted over the top from the midfield and looped a shot over Conway, who saw the ball elude his grasp and bound into the net. Johnson's elation led him to remove his shirt and receive an expected yellow card.
New York continued to absorb the Wizards' pressure and was successful in slowing the match by getting numbers behind the ball. Showing their tactical sense, Kansas City's backs began to push the offense wide. And it was a ball sent out to left back Jose Burciaga, Jr., by playmaker Marinelli in the 59th minute that led to the Wizards taking the lead.
Burciaga's full steam dash toward the end line ended with hard, low cross through the crowded box that found Johnson at the far post. The 23-year-old calmly put the ball home and the Wizards had a reward for their persistence.
The Wizards dominated the rest of the match and got needed insurance in the 86th minute as Victorine had time and space in middle of the Red Bulls' end to play through for Johnson, who made no mistake slotting the ball inside Conway's near post. The goal completed Johnson's hat trick, making him the first in MLS history to score three or more goals in consecutive matches.
The Red Bulls would not go quietly, though, as midfielder Dema Kovalenko struck two minutes later to make the remaining minutes tense. The Wizards survived and succeeded in replacing the Red Bulls atop the conference.
Bob Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.