That was the best performance by Sporting Kansas City all year. But for one gigantic fly in the ointment the size and shape of Graham Zusi with a bump on his noggin, last night's performance by the team would leave me outrageously optimistic for the season. Playing on the road in MLS is hard. Sporting fans have been as spoiled by our team's road results over the past few seasons as we have been demoralized by our (relatively) poor form at home, but let's not forget: any road point is a good point. That's especially true against a good team--and DC United is a good team. DC's roster is chock full of cagey veterans like former Kansas City captain Davy Arnaud, guys I keep expecting to look too old to play in the league but who keep proving my evaluation foolish. DC sits atop the Eastern Conference right now, and deservedly so. Earning a draw at RFK is a good result for us.
The best part of last night's result for me was the maturity that got us the point. Peter Vermes had a sound game plan that squad executed well. We didn't exactly bunker, but we weren't naively throwing bodies forward either. Anytime you see Jacob Peterson starting at forward, you know pragmatic tactics will be on the agenda. We were compact and organized defensively, but more than willing to attack when we had our moments. Even after giving up a goal against the run of play, Sporting didn't get frustrated. In response to giving up the goal, Roger Espinoza Rogered his way to a spectacular assist which Dom finished with authority. That's some mental toughness and focus that Sporting will need over a long season.
Melia looked better in goal last night than he did in his first start, which bodes well for him and the team. The man Melia displaced got a yellow card for yelling at the officials from the sideline, which for the moment I take to be an indication of his continued engagement with the squad (which also bodes well for him and the team). Our goalkeeper situation seems calm enough to worry about other things right now.
Among those other things to worry about is the right back position. Opponents have discovered that running at Anibaba yields dangerous crosses into the box. Rolfe gave Anibaba plenty of trouble last night, but Korb marauding forward from his left back position for United gave us fits. Fortunately, Chance Myers is reportedly on the mend, but we'll have to hope he can find his form fast.
Back to the positive front, if last night was an audition for Erik Palmer-Brown to replace Ike, I think he should get the part. EPB is barely 18 and possessed of physical tools that could make him a center back star at a very high level. According to the rumors, that high level will soon be Juventus in Italy, but with Ike injured and his athleticism and size missed in the defense, EPB might be an in-house solution for this season--even if his skills soon take him abroad for a higher level of competition and more money than MLS can offer soon enough. Last night was really the only opportunity to give EPB a shot at the spot, since he just finished high school and is about to head off to the US under-20 national team, but what I saw last night makes me think we might be able to forgo an expensive transfer from overseas to fill Ike's shoes this summer, at least.
EPB wasn't the only youngster showing well. Rookie Connor Hallisey looked dangerous in the attack and competent in the defense as a late match substitute. Dia once again looked solid when pressed into service due to injury . . . but the injury that brought Dia into the match is the major worry for Sporting fans today.
Poor Graham Zusi was having his best game of the season last night. Between stress fractures and hamstring strains, Zusi has been forced to get his fitness and timing down as the season progresses. Fortunately, an 80% Graham Zusi is a plenty good player, but the prospect of Zusi at 100% is enough to cause a sparkle in my eye. For the first time all season, Graham looked close to ready to play at his full ability level. He was defending with vigor, he was taking on players with the ball at his feet, he was generally playing like the Zusi we remember from seasons past.
Then his head encountered Bobby Boswell's elbow. Zusi bleeding from the head is a terrible thing to see, but even worse was the dazed confusion in his eyes as he left the field after attempting to play on. More than we need Zusi to get healthy (and we definitely need him to get healthy), I hope he is okay. Head injuries are scary, and there's more to life than soccer. So far, my obsessive searching of news sources and social media hasn't turned up anything definitive on Graham's status other than he will be evaluated in Kansas City, but I'm expecting and even hoping that he will get at least a few weeks off to heal fully.
Sports are cruel, soccer especially so. We played a great game, and we saw a trio of youngsters play encouragingly well--but we also saw a veteran we rely upon go down for who knows how long.
Get well, Graham.