When you play a soccer game on the surface of the sun, you can't expect crisp play. Sporting didn't look sharp Saturday night, but they were sharp enough to win 2-1 against Montreal. It was so hot that I left my supporter's scarf at home. My car thermometer read 93 degrees when we parked a little after 7:00 for the 7:30 kickoff. We normally like to get to the stadium early, but there didn't seem to be any reason to sweat extra. An app on my phone told me the heat index was 107 for the start of the match. I felt wilted even under shade in the West Stand.
If I couldn't do my best rooting under those conditions, I can't imagine how either team played in them. Truth be told, neither side played particularly well, but that's no surprise and certainly is no sin. Through the heat, Sporting managed to beat the Impact yet again in Sporting Park.
I've been thinking a lot about the match this Sunday as I went hither and yon for errands all day. Sporting would have lost that match last year, or at least given up the draw against a lackluster Montreal side. Last season, when things went sloppy (as things usually went by mid-season) Sporting found ways to lose. This year's Sporting seems the antithesis of last year's team. This year, we find ways to win.
I think I know what's different about this year's team. The difference doesn't often show up in the boxscore, but it--or, I should say, he--made the difference last night.
Sure, Benny had a great night in the stat sheet with his goal and assist. Dom scored the second goal that we needed for the win, Melia came up big, Besler was solid, and Peterson and Dia both put in solid shifts. All of those guys are players I'm happy to have on my team, but none of those guys are what's making the difference for this season's team.
The difference is Roger Espinoza.
Saturday night, Espinoza willed the team to victory. Roger ran through the heat, winning ball after ball, making tackle after tackle. He set up the first goal by reclaiming a wasted attack before the Impact could counterattack us. Roger's ball to Nemeth was simple and skillful and made Benny's goal possible. Time and again, our defense would be slow to respond or poor Abdul-Salaam would be out of position (which is where he lived all match), and Roger would sprint in to get just enough of a touch on the ball to break up play.
Roger is some sort of freak of nature. He ran as hard at the end as he did at the beginning, never mind the 90 minutes of oven roasting he endured over the course of the match. Roger is the toughest soccer player I have ever seen play in person. He doesn't yell as much as Benny or gesticulate like Vermes, but his sheer effort makes me think he somehow wants to win even more than those two do.
With Roger Espinoza on the field, we can win ugly. Without him last season, when a match got ugly we were sure to lose. Roger lets us turn in a lackluster performance and still have a chance to win. The little mistakes, the bad giveaways, the poor positioning killed us time after time last season--this season, Roger takes the edge off of those. He gives us a chance to win every game.
We won last night, for which I thank Roger. Three points in the standings are three points, even if they were won in a sloppy and hot affair.
The weather forecast calls for cooler weather on Tuesday when we host the Houston Dynamo in the Open Cup. I hope we're crisper, but I like our chances regardless, so long as Roger's on our side.