Tantalizing Soccer

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Ignore the four goals for a moment. Even ignore the scintillating play that scored those goals. Consider the lineup Sporting Kansas City had to use against what could be the best team in the Eastern Conference (and the team that currently sits second overall in the East). That was not a lineup I expected to get three points; that was a lineup I hoped could draw. At left back we started a rookie (Dia) due to injuries to the two left backs ahead of him in the depth chart. At right back we started a guy (Anibaba) who's probably not a natural right back in our 4-3-3 system while we wait for the probably the best 4-3-3 right back in America to return from Achilles surgery. Instead of Ike Opara, who was the best defender in the league at the beginning of the season, we started the merely serviceable Kevin Ellis at center back. With Zusi still out recovering from his concussion (and rightfully so), Jacob Peterson, the utility infielder of the soccer world, started instead. Nagamura is a crafty veteran, but he doesn't have the athleticism and passing touch of the injured Espinoza he replaced. Our goalkeeper was the league's pool 'keeper last year. Our bench was a man short because we were just out of healthy bodies.

Yet we won against a very good New England Revolution team, and we didn't win on a fluke. Sporting took the game to the Revs, and Revs were overrun. To be fair to New England, road matches in MLS are hard, midweek road matches on short rest are harder, and a midweek road match against a team that didn't play the weekend before may be near impossible. Fatigued or not, though, the Revs lineup is deep and talented. And we made them look bad.

Perhaps not coincidentally, two off-season additions turned in their best performances to-date in Sporting blue by far. Mustivar didn't just defend better than ever before in his defensive midfield position, he was the metronome dictating the tempo of the match. For Sporting to play Peter Vermes' system, the team needs a defensive midfielder to stop counterattacks and dictate the pace of our own possession. Mustivar's play was just what the doctor ordered last night.

And then there was Nemeth.

Krisztian Nemeth wasn't just a rapier dancing through the New England defense to create chances for himself and his teammates. Nemmeth defended, not necessarily with skill but certainly with effort. For the first time all season, I didn't leave a Sporting match convinced that Benny Feilhaber was our best player--and not because Benny played poorly. Benny had the one bad giveaway that led to the Kevin Ellis mistake that gave the Revolution the early lead, but after that Feilhaber played rather like the MLS MVP candidate he is. Nemmeth was still the best player on the field last night.

Things just worked for Sporting. Passes were crisp, goal-scoring chances were mostly finished (that tends to be the case when you score 4), and the defense was at least okay (although you'd rather not give up 2). Under typical circumstances, Dom's wonder-strike would be the talk of the postgame, but given the rest of the team's performance his goal is just another of many positive talking points. Three different rookies (Dia who started, plus second half substitutes Hallisey and Abdul-Salaam) played well, and the prospect of their continued improvement and the return of injured players give a tantalizing glimpse of just how good this team could be.

Off to Seattle.


Postscript: To be fair in expectation setting, I'm not expecting much from this weekend's trip to Seattle. Saturday night, we'll be the team playing on short rest, and probably still riddled with injuries. A loss at Seattle is not disastrous, and a tie would be a great result. Even if Sporting looks terrible in the Emerald City, that's no reason to despair.