Sporting Kansas City has played well in Seattle before, but--as the broadcast team pointed out last night--the Sounders have made a habit out of summoning up magic at the death to send my Boys in Blue home empty-handed despite the quality of their performance. Not that the Sounders particularly need to snatch points at the death this season. Even without the injured Obafemi Martins in the lineup, national teamer Clint Dempsey is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Seattle's talent. Every MLS team has an enormous advantage at home, but the Sounders have an even greater advantage than most due to the 40,000 or so fans they draw and that god-awful turf they play on.
With Sporting heading to the Emerald City on short rest and riddled with injuries, I fully expected to take zero points out of the match--a scenario that wouldn't have bothered me much but for how it would have let Seattle take three. With Dwyer a late scratch with a neck injury, my expectations dropped lower.
Sporting more than exceeded my expectations. If Sporting fans want a reason to be optimistic for the season, last night is the single best reason yet.
Peter Vermes seems to have learned how to game plan and then manage a match. His game plan worked perfectly last night. By ceding possession in harmless parts of the field, Seattle got to see a lot of the ball but very little in the way of dangerous opportunities. PV managed his short bench like a master, trusting three rookies to finish off the match after injuries forced one of those rookies, Dia, into a starting position once again.
Speaking of rookies, Sporting's kids sure looked good. Vermes called them "coachable" in a post-match interview, and they clearly listen to what they're told if he's willing to play them at this point in their first season as professionals. They're more than willing to follow instructions, however--they're also athletic. Dia is slight, but speedy. Hallisey is, if anything, speedier than Dia. Abdul-Salaam brings some height and physicality we desperately need with the loss of Ike to injury (and, going back further, Kamara to transfer). Sporting's veterans provide plenty of guile and skill, but none of them overwhelm opponents with raw physical abilities. If our rookies can continue to press for playing time even when the rest of the squad gets healthy, we will be a better team than I expected this year.
My biggest source of optimism this morning, however, is the continued growth of Soni Mustivar as a defensive midfielder. Twitter was full of Sounders fans complaining about how poor their offense looked last night, which amounts to praise for Mustivar's work to stop Seattle attacks before they became dangerous. Mustivar did the boring things like positioning and making the simple pass out of danger very well last night, in that way you wouldn't notice if you weren't looking for it. He shielded the gap that tends to develop between Ellis and Anibaba in the defense. He even hit a couple of long passes to switch the field in the attack. If Soni keeps playing at that level, Sporting can be more than a team that sneaks into the playoffs this season.
Mustivar wasn't the only player who turned in his best performance of the season last night. I've questioned whether Melia can be a longterm answer in goal for Sporting, and last night he played like a 'keeper who just might be a longterm answer. As he's gotten comfortable in his starting role he's started catching the ball, and he made some big catches collecting crosses last night. Melia's decision making was spot-on and confident. When he came out, he got the ball; when he stayed on his line, he positioned himself well. He organized the defense in front of him and commanded his box. I'm not ready to declare Tim the eternal number one goalkeeper for Sporting, but he certainly deserves the job for the foreseeable future. I was wrong about his ability.
One big bright spot came in the 77th minute when Graham Zusi entered the match. Graham brought an attacking verve that threatened to give the visitors all the points once or twice, but most importantly he looked healthy and crisp. Once Zusi is able to return to the starting lineup, Sporting will become a much more dangerous team from the start.
Talking about individual players misses the biggest point of last night's match for Sporting, though. The entire team earned that point in Seattle, from Vermes and his assistants to the trainers, from the starting eleven to the substitutes, from the bench to the players who didn't make the trip but have been working in training. The squad taking shape game by game is a gritty unit that sticks together, even though there's plenty of guys who could fancy themselves stars in their own right. That's the kind of team a fan can be proud to root for, that's the kind of team that can win in MLS.
Don't look now, but we play the Western Conference leaders in Sporting Park on Friday, and a win will tie us with them at the top of the standings. Whether we get those three points or not, the simple fact that we are in this position is the biggest positive at this point in this season of change.
Bring on Dallas.