That was the most convincing performance of the season for Sporting Kansas City. I'm convinced because of who we were playing against, where we were playing, and which players we even had available to us. Vancouver was (and remains) atop the standings of the Western Conference, although my Boys in Blue have more than enough games in hand to make up the difference between us. The Whitecaps are a nightmare to defend, with lethal speed on the wings. They play on a crazy-fast turf field that exploits the Whitecaps' abilities. You don't want to be shorthanded for a trip to Vancouver, because the Whitecaps have the skill and athleticism to punish a second string player.
We were shorthanded, though. We were really shorthanded.
Zusi was off on international duty for the US in the Gold Cup, but Jacob Peterson turned in a workmanlike performance in his absence, with rookie Connor Hallisey bringing youthful energy (without youthful mistakes) late in the match.
Worse than missing Zusi in the attack, we were missing most of our defense. One seasoned left back (Seth Sinovic) was still recovering from a concussion while our other seasoned left back (Marcel de Jong) was away at the Gold Cup playing for his native Canada--so rookie Amadou Dia got the start once again. On the opposite side at right back, Chance Myers was wisely held out of action to avoid risking his barely mended Achilles on the treacherous turf, but our second choice right back (Jalil Anibaba) is freshly injured himself, leaving another rookie (Saad Abdul-Salaam) the only option to play on the right side. Both of the rookie fullbacks grew up a lot last night. They didn't turn in perfect performances, but no kid is going to play a perfect game when they're tangling with attacking talent like Manneh and Techera and Rosales. We kept a clean sheet against the most explosive offense in MLS with two rookie fullbacks, and that speaks volumes for those two.
In the center of defense, we're still missing Ike Opara, but Kevin Ellis stepped in ably once again. Ellis even scored the goal that won it for Kansas City. Captaining the team alongside Ellis, Besler continued to make Jurgen Klinsman look a fool for not calling him into the US Gold Cup squad. I guess the nation's loss is Kansas City's gain when it comes to Besler.
Of course, the only way we kept the clean sheet and got out of Vancouver with the win was yet another spectacular performance from Tim Melia in goal. He's credited with 6 saves in the boxscore, and I don't think a single one of them wasn't breathtaking. Even better than breathtaking saves, though, was his excellent decision making and near flawless positioning. I doubted him when he was inserted into the starting lineup earlier this season, but right now Tim Melia is the best goalkeeper in MLS. If Melia keeps playing like this, I hope he's talking with Matt Besler about how to piss off Klinsman so as to avoid a deserved national team call-up.
While the saves were spectacular (and don't forget two goal line clearances by field players), we really won the match in the midfield. As the game wore on, Soni Mustivar controlled the flow of play more and more. The smartest analyst in MLS dubbed Soni a monster as a result of his performance, and the moniker fits--in a good way, of course. Mustivar didn't seize control alone; he had partners in the midfield. Feilhaber and Espinoza have learned to play together, both in attacking and in defending, and that familiarity showed. Mustivar-Feilhaber-Espinoza has become the best midfield in the league. Roger doesn't make the reckless tackles he used to (and that's a good thing), but he brings chaos every time the opposition tries to build an attack. Soni stays home and gobbles up the stray balls Roger causes. Then Benny does his creative magic with the recovered balls. What makes the trio especially lethal, though, is that they can interchange, especially Roger and Benny. There's not a game plan available to opponents that lets them beat that trio other than "have better players," but right now I don't think there's a team in the league that can do that.
Then there are the two regularly starting forwards. Vancouver had a game plan to slow them down--which kind of worked, but didn't work enough for the Whitecaps. Nemeth's assist on Ellis' goal was the sort of delivery that wins games, but he also bedeviled Vancouver's fullbacks all night. Those aren't shabby players (and Beitashour is one heck of a player, IMHO). Dom Dwyer, meanwhile, didn't get a goal, but he did get deep under the skin of the gargantuan center back Kendall Waston. Despite giving up something like 8 inches to Waston, Dom reduced the big man to cheap shots before the night was done.
To top it all off, Vermes coached a heck of a game. To hold out Myers and start a rookie must have required intestinal fortitude, but it was the right call under the circumstances. The simple game plan for the rookies was perfect, and it worked to a T.
That wasn't the best performance the team has made this season. I sure hope we haven't peaked yet. But when you have to play your second and even third string on the road against a top opponent, you aren't supposed to have a chance at even getting a draw. That Sporting Kansas City managed to scrape out a win under those circumstances has convinced me. This team just might be pretty good.
This rooting is fun.