We were a happy carload driving home from Sporting Park last night. We've seen almost every match played in that stadium since it opened, and we've seen our boys in blue play both exquisite and dreadful soccer over the years. What we saw last night didn't reach exquisite, but for the third match of the season the performance was very encouraging. As I drove home, my wife read the #SKCvPOR unhappiness off of Twitter to me. Fans seemed particularly shocked by how pleased Peter Vermes was with his squad's performance. PV had every right to be pleased with Sporting's performance, because our guys played well.
People are still plenty grumpy, though. I understand wanting your team to win, and win handily, but this match was a great performance, the kind of performance this team needs along the way to a successful season this year. Sure, I would have preferred a 6-0 victory, but those will be in short supply now that Chivas USA has been euthanized by the league.
Here's a partial list of the many reasons to be happy about Saturday's match:
1. Matt Besler played like Matt Besler.
After his performance in last summer's World Cup, the big money transfer rumors started to fly around Sporting's captain. His play in central defense for the US was critical to us advancing out of the Group of Death at the expense of Portugal. Besler declined the various offers from overseas to sign a new-and-improved longterm designated player contract with Sporting.
Since signing that big contract, Besler's play had been . . . lacking. His second yellow card in the opening match against the Red Bulls was emblematic of his play down the stretch last season: his poor positioning led to a poor tackle (which he made recklessly), and from there his team was hanging on for dear life.
I was willing to chalk up Besler's poor play last season to exhaustion, first and foremost, from a hard World Cup and a congested club schedule. Throw in the ever-changing cast of characters pressed into duty beside, behind, and in front of him due to the rash of injuries that plagued the team, and it's easy to see why he didn't play as well as we had hoped. A tired central defender trying to do too much because he doesn't know what his teammates are doing (or, worse yet, knows and thinks it's the wrong thing) looks a lot like the Matt Besler who ended last season.
The problem is, that same not-so-good Matt Besler started this season. That was more than enough cause for each and every fan of the team to worry. Happily, the Matt Besler who stymied Cristiano Ronaldo returned to us last night. His positioning was superb. He won header after header. He permitted no clean runs by Portland's talented attacking players. His distribution from the back was spot on, with only a single errant pass that I can recall.
Matt Besler is both the foundation of this team's success and the canary in the coal mine when things aren't quite right. A single bad match to open this season was no reason to write the guy off, and a single good match now is no reason to elect him to the Hall of Fame, but Matt Besler playing like the guy who deserved the big contract bodes very well for this season.
2. We may just have ourselves a number 1 goalkeeper.
I think we all really missed Jimmy Nielsen last season. Not only was Jimmy a stalwart starter between the pipes, but his ability to command his box and organize the defense in front of him was the sort of thing that was easy to overlook until it was gone. We're just three games into the season, but Luis Marin has brought a confidence and command to the 'keeper position that we lacked last season as we rotated two nice guys who are great backups and one kid who may just be incredible someday through the starting spot. He brings an ability to distribute the ball and athleticism that Jimmy never did. A true number one goalkeeper will save many points for his team over a season. I think we have one of those.
3. Benny Feilhaber is the player we need (not the player many want).
Benny Feilhaber has been the unicorn of US soccer ever since he started his professional career: an alleged true creative midfielder. We fans have yearned to see Benny be a guy who creates amazing attacks out of thin air with his sheer technical brilliance, field vision, and creativity. Benny tried to be that guy for years, and as a result lived a vagabond life going from team to team in Europe, and then came back to the States to be an expensive bench player in New England. Sporting got him for a song.
In Kansas City, Benny turned into a relentless box-to-box midfielder under the probably not-so-gentle coaching of Peter Vermes. He still showed sparks of the flair and creativity that made him a lust-object of so many American soccer fans, but he added a level of aggression and flat-out effort that had been mostly absent from his game before.
The new version of Benny Feilhaber wasn't as sexy to watch as the player we had been wanting, but he was far and away more effective than the player he actually had been. The new, relentlessly working Benny won a championship, and for my money was the best player on that team.
Now Benny is morphing again, this time to something close to a true holding midfielder anchored between the central defenders. Twitter is chockfull of people complaining about Benny's new role and how it deprives Sporting from his creativity in the attack.
Benny is the best defensive midfielder on this team right now. He's not a prototypical intimidator, and his tackling is not always ideal, but his understanding of the game lets him position himself superbly. Better yet, his technical skills let him slow down the tempo of play in tight places and then initiate a counterattack; better yet, his field vision and passing ability allow him to intercept a ball and drop long, deadly passes to immediately launch a counter.
I don't think Benny will ever be the best defensive midfielder in MLS, but he's the best defensive midfielder option Sporting has at the moment. Maybe Carrasco or Mustivar or some player to arrive over the summer will let Benny return to his box-to-box role, but for now he is the perfect defensive midfielder for the way Sporting is trying to play.
4. Roger is the Roger we remember, only better.
Roger Espinoza's return to the squad has brought a serious bite back to our midfield. He's still a guy who runs and tackles and intercepts passes all match long, but now he's physically stronger and possesses more attacking ideas than before. He's already got a goal to his name, and those clever little diagonal balls he's started playing are going to turn into assists as this team gels.
5. Zusi is healing, and his conditioning is improving.
Despite his considerable success with the US National Team and at Sporting, Graham Zusi is not the world's most talented athlete--not even close. He's a hardworking player who seems to get stronger as a game goes on, because traditionally his fitness level has been so superior to anyone else on the field that his opponents fade around him at the 80th minute. He's succeeded by combining that conditioning with the types of technical skills you can only get from hours and years of work with a ball at your feet.
That stress fracture in his foot no one knew about at the end of last season has been a huge problem for him.
If you can't run, its hard to get and stay Sporting Fit. If you can't be on your feet working with a ball, your touch gets rusty. For the first two matches, Graham mostly looked like a guy coming back from injury. Last night, he had moments--most critically late in the match--where he looked like his old self.
A healthy and fully fit Graham Zusi is in our future, and that future is drawing closer all the time. That alone will cure an abundance of our goal scoring woes.
6. If he can stay healthy, Ike Opara is an upgrade.
I like Ike.
I'm reluctant to put too much faith in a player coming back from such a devastating injury, but Ike Opara looks like an upgrade from Aurelien Collin. I know that's sacrilege to many fans, but Ike brings a stability and consistency alongside Besler that Collin never could. I thought we would miss Collin's aerial ability on set pieces, but so far this season Ike's scored once on a header and has shown both a willingness and an ability to attack a ball in the box exceeding even that of my favorite MLSer from France. If Ike can keep playing at the level he's played through three matches, he may very well win MLS Defender of the Year--he's been that good.
7. Depth at fullback.
I feel terrible for Seth Sinovic.
Seth bounced around the league until he was picked up by his hometown club. When given a chance, Seth became a mainstay in one of the best defenses the modern MLS has seen. Seth was an ironman last season, the only constant in our ever-shifting defense.
Seth is a deserving hero to me and many other Sporting fans--remember him playing without hands after he broke one and sliced up the other? The guy's talented and tough, the kind of player I love to root for.
The thing is, Marcel de Jong sure looks like an upgrade.
Rumor has it that de Jong fell into Vermes' lap this January. The contract worked out, and the European veteran and Canadian National Teamer has claimed a starting spot at left back. Seth went from being the best left back in MLS to being the second best left back on his team. Soccer is a cruel sport, but depth is valuable--especially at a position with so few natural fits.
The newfound depth isn't just at left back. On the right side, both Dia and Anibaba have played very--very well, actually--in place of the injured Chance Myers. I don't think Chance will lose the starting spot to either of those two once he is fully fit, but it sure doesn't look like he needs to be rushed back. After seeing the trials and tribulations at right back last season, it's a considerable relief to have that spot well covered.
8. Dwyer will be fine.
Did you see the way Dom Dwyer quit working last night, frustrated by the lack of decent chances and lack of service?
Dom is fine. His workrate is high, he's getting into good spots, and he'll score many goals. Dom just needs to get a few more looks, and those will come as the team gels behind him.
9. Okay, I'll stop now.
Seriously, there are many more positives from last night's match, from the new faces making an appearance to our relative success against an opponent with legitimate title ambitions (even if they were short handed due to injuries).
If the team continues along the path they've traveled for the past two games, this team will be very, very good. I don't think they're going to win the league this season, but they are putting the pieces in place for another run at the Cup in the near future.
It's going to be a fun ride, so don't get off the Big Blue Bandwagon just yet.