I expect to lose most of the times I go to Sporting Park. MLS is a tricky league, what with the salary cap and small rosters. The margin between a good team and a bad team is very fine indeed. Throw in Sporting's tendency to defy MLS trends by getting better results on the road than at home in recent years, and I have a bit of trepidation before every home match. After taking a not entirely deserved beatdown in Dallas earlier this season, and knowing that even without the injured Castillo FC Dallas is a dangerous team, I went into Sporting Park expecting the worst against Dallas last night.
So much for my expectations. Sporting routed one of the better teams in the league 4-0.
How dominant was Sporting? Three different players (Nemeth, Zusi, and central defender Kevin Ellis) notched both a goal and an assist. Every member of the squad deserves an epic poem or something, but those three players sum up why fans just might need to raise our expectations for this team.
Nemeth was starting at center forward due to Dwyer's injured neck. 'Nemo' entered the season as an unknown: a Hungarian with a spectacular soccer pedigree whose career had been derailed by injuries and bad luck. At the beginning of the season, I for one didn't know if we could count on Nemeth to contribute to the team. European players have a history of struggling to adapt to MLS. Worse for Nemeth, early on, injuries kept him off the pitch. For the past few weeks, though, there hasn't been an attacking player in the league I would take over Nemeth.
Last night Nemeth set out with what looked like a plan from Vermes' chalkboard to attack Zach Loyd in the center of the Dallas' defense. Poor Zach had a rough night. Nemeth opened the scoring thanks to Kevin Ellis beating Loyd to the Zusi free kick, with the result of Ellis' header being an easy score for Nemo. From there, Nemeth only made things worse for Loyd. Nemeth drew a first yellow on Zach in the 33rd minute just barely outside of the box when Loyd had no choice but to break out an American football tackle to keep Nemeth from being through on goal. Ten minutes later, Nemeth drew the second yellow on Loyd in a play that looked suspiciously similar, except that it was considerably further away from goal. Two yellows equal a red, Loyd was ejected, and from there the winner of the match was clear.
The thing is, Zach Loyd is a pretty typical second center back in MLS. For my money, he's not as physically gifted or skilled as his partner in the Dallas Defense, Matt Hedges, but if Nemeth can consistently use and abuse the Zach Loyds of MLS, both Nemo and Sporting have a brilliant season ahead of them.
Zusi was also in the assist-and-a-goal club last night. Actually, he was justly credited with two assists on the night (a secondary assist on the first goal by Nemeth and the only assist on the later goal by Ellis). Zusi's sublime finish of Connor Hallisey's clever back heel was just icing on the cake. Graham provided his trademarked set piece deliveries, his standard extraordinarily high work rate on both sides of the ball, and an attacking verve the team has been missing. More appearances by this healthy version of Graham Zusi will take Sporting far.
Then there's Kevin Ellis. Forget about his goal and assist last night. Those were great, but what matters is that for the second game in a row he was rock-solid in the defense. Kevin Ellis is Sporting's version Zach Loyd, the decent MLS center back playing alongside a star-caliber center back partner (although to be fair to Matt Besler, he's a better player than Dallas' Hedges).
Coming into the season, I liked Sporting's chances down the stretch because Ike Opara was a second star-caliber center back to pair with Besler. When Ellis was first deputized after Ike's injury, the results were so poor that young Erik Palmer-Brown looked like a better option. I was worried when EPB left for the U-20 World Cup and Ellis had to be re-inserted into the starting lineup. After losing his starting spot once, Ellis seems determined to keep it now. He's been steady and reliable, which is precisely what a center back needs to be. Set piece goals and assists from a center back are nice, but they're not what we need from Kevin Ellis. If he keeps defending like he did last night (and last weekend in Seattle), Sporting's ceiling is high this season.
There's reason enough for optimism beyond the three stars from last night's match. Matt Besler turned in yet another of his hum-drum 'you shall not pass' dominating performances. Melia continues his streak of turning in his best performance as a starting goalkeeper every single match. Mustivar continued his own streak of improving from one match to the next in the defensive midfield position. Three rookies made positive contributions and gained experience that will be valuable later in the season. Roger Espinoza returned from injury with a solid performance. We still have Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic, and Paulo Nagamura working on returning to health--not to mention the long absent Bernardo Anor and the industrious utility player Jacob Peterson. Dwyer's neck will surely be better soon. There may be money to spend to bring in new players from abroad over the summer transfer window. This Sporting Kansas City team isn't a finished product yet.
Last night's performance would have beaten any team in the league, but there's plenty of reasons to think we can improve from last night's match. The pessimist in me knows the season is long, players regress, and injuries happen. I know that it won't be clear sailing from here to the playoffs, but I also know that we are entering into the stretch of the season where the top teams figure themselves out and start to string together positive results.
Sporting is undefeated in their last six matches. We get to try to continue the string of positive results at home against Seattle next weekend.