While you simply can’t question the goal-scoring prowess of Sporting Kansas City given their fast-paced, high intensity, attacking style of play, by the laws of the game it is, by definition, a fact that you can not lose a soccer game in which you play that your opponent fails to score a goal. Someone let Sporting KC technical director and head coach Peter Vermes in on this secret sometime around the midway point of the 2011 season, and he in turn must have shared the news with his team.
It is true that the 2011 version of Sporting scored an impressive 50 goals during a 34-game regular season (1.47 per game), and that that total was good enough for second-most in the league. Also, it is true that Sporting boasted of three players with nine goals a piece in 2011 – Teal Bunbury, Kei Kamara and Omar Bravo – and that no other team could make such a claim.
Anybody that watches soccer likes to see goals scored, and why wouldn’t they? Sporting scored 12 goals in its first ten games of 2011 – including three in a game, twice and two in a game, twice – and they were suddenly known as this entertaining, free-slowing, we’re-going-to-outscore-you team that everyone loved to watch, which they surely were. At the same time, Sporting found themselves clear of every team in MLS at the bottom of the league, just six points from ten games.
Then, a whole bunch of things happened at one time, and it flipped the trajectory of Sporting’s entire season 180-degrees the other direction. LIVESTRONG Sporting Park opened on June 9 – Sporting’s eleventh game of the season, Vermes went a little lighter on the über-tempo – erring slightly more towards balanced and stable, and a regular starting group of four defenders burst onto the scene playing as if they knew the entire team’s season depended on it – (from right to left) Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic.
“I think against Seattle (away on May 21, 2011) we defended a little smarter,” defender Matt Besler said by phone on Wednesday. “That’s kind of what Peter changed – maybe our style a little bit. In defending, we don’t want to be over-aggressive or take too many chances, so we kind of wanted to be a little safer.”
Not only the defense, but the entire team played “smarter” and “safer”, as Sporting fell to Seattle that night by the thinnest of margins – a 1-0 loss in stoppage time – the last time they would lose an MLS league game for two and a half months, going 14 games unbeaten, and climbing from dead last in the league into the Eastern Conference top two.
The Sporting defense allowed 10 goals in those 14 games, compared to 18 in the season’s first ten. The massive turnaround saw Besler voted into the 2011 MLS All-Star game by virtue of fan voting, when a case could have been made for inclusion based solely upon merits and his stellar play. A turnaround like that doesn’t just creep up out of nowhere and cultivate itself from nothing.
“It’s a credit to the guys and their commitment to everyday getting better with what we’re trying to do as a team,” Vermes said following his team’s second straight shutout to begin to 2012 season on Saturday night. “Everybody thinks that we go out to training, each day is different and come up with these new exercises, but there’s a lot of things we do that are in place to develop the way that we play. There’s a lot of consistency in that.”
Talk to every one of those four starters and the first person outside themselves that they’ll tell you about is career-long central-defender-turned-defensive-midfielder Julio Cesar. Cesar’s intelligence on the field, ability to not only read the opposing attack but also snuff it out, and cool and collected demeanor on the ball have taken a large burden off of Besler and Collin, thus making the entire backline better for it.
“He’s calm and cool; sometimes he’s a little too cool for school. He knows when to tackle, and when to destroy a play,” according to Vermes. “He’s a decent distributor of the ball, but he has a good sense to sit in front of the back four. His experience is very important for the way we play.”
“I think Julio fits our system really well,” Besler said. “If you look at him, he doesn’t cover a ton of ground, and he’s not going to be flying all over the field, but in our system, we need a guy just to stay in the middle there. If we had a guy in there that was flying all over and got caught out of position, teams would find that gap and they’d be running at our back four. Julio stays there and he breaks up a lot of plays for Collin and I.”
While that may be a bit of a “behind the scenes role” taken up by Cesar, Besler lays the importance of his job out clearly and states his importance to the entire team.
“It’s hard to notice him when he’s in there, but it’s easy to notice him when he’s not there.”
It’s the unspoken chemistry and comfort level that the five players have together that has gone such a long way to shoring up what has quietly become one of the league’s best defenses.
“The relationships and the partnerships on the field are becoming one where, the guys know if one goes, the next guy has got to stay,” Vermes went on to say on Saturday. “When you first start out trying to build that, you’re thinking about it, but it’s not instinctive. When it becomes instinctive, that’s why you see it as fluid as it is. I think our team concept of defending has improved immensely.”
“The only way for a defense to gain a good reputation and gain notoriety is to not allow goals. We want to have the fewest goals given up in MLS this year,” Besler declared. “We’ve talked about that, everyone realizes that’s a goal, and we’re off to a good start.”
Off to a good start, indeed, but not just for 2012. Dating back to the end of the 2011 season, the back four has been comprised of the same four players for nine of the team’s last twelve MLS regular season and playoff games. In those twelve games, Sporting have given up a grand total of five goals; in the most recent seven games, just two goals (0.41 per game, and 0.28 per game).
So, where is the recognition for that kind of production? According to Besler, if they’re not being talked about right now, at least bad things aren’t being said about the group.
“It would bother me if people said that they have a really good attack, but their defense is awful,” Besler joked. “But, I don’t think they’re saying that.”
No, Matt, they most definitely are not saying you’re awful. And, if the Sporting defense keeps anywhere near its current pace of stingy goal conceding, there’s sure going to be a lot more talk from national media about the group as a whole, and individual recognition for what have become four very good MLS defenders.