Soccer's a funny game. Last weekend, Sporting managed to win despite playing poorly. We all went home happy, even if the performance left eclectic bloggers grasping for points to make. Last night Sporting turned in a much improved performance, but had to settle for a draw.
Of course, a lot of the difference in outcome is down to the opponents. The Real Salt Lake team we faced last night may be a shadow of the RSL team we defeated on penalties for the MLS Cup, but RSL remains a seasoned team chock full with talents, not to mention players as tough as nails. The Union team we punched for two goals in stoppage is a hot mess. The performance we put in against RSL might have beaten the Union by 4.
I tend to write about narrative more than statistics in these postmortems, but the statistics tell the tale of last night's match. RSL attempted only 4 shots, none of those on goal. The zero shots on goal for RSL isn't the sort of thing that happens very often, or scarcely ever--although it is something Sporting managed to pull off a few times during their run toward the Cup. In the first half, Sporting made zero clearances--not a one--because Salt Lake never created a chance for themselves in need of clearing. Sporting's defensive performance last night was nothing short of smothering.
Our offense was . . . not as good as our defense. Sporting managed a respectable 12 shot attempts, but only one was on target. The best opportunity came on Dwyer's delightful finish on Feilhaber's perfectly weighted pass in the 55th minute. Both I and the confetti cannon operator were fooled on that one, but the linesman flag was up. I watched the replay once I got home, and the officials got that one right. Other than that lone moment, I spent the rest of the match feeling that we were close but yet far away from breaking through on the offense.
There's plenty of narrative to hang around those low offensive numbers. Championships can't be won in April, but they can be lost. Defense wins championships. Peter Vermes is a defensive coach. Espinoza. Beckerman. Etc.
All of those are true enough, but the biggest truth I took away from last night's match is that our team is a work in progress. One positive last night was the play of Servando Carrasco in the defensive midfielder position. He wasn't Uri-esque, but he's consistently improved his performance match over match. The more Carrasco can nail down that position, the more Roger can destroy and the more Benny can create--and the more offensive looks we will get.
The biggest worry I took away from the match is Ike Opara's health. I'm not hopping off of my Ike Opara for MLS Defender of the Year bandwagon yet, and I'm hoping his late injury won't tear the wheels off of my wagon.
Last night, we went in the right direction, but we've got a long way to go. We still have Zusi healing in the wings, and Chance Myers recovering as well. Both of those guys will be a big boost to the offense, without hurting our defense.
Be patient. Championships aren't won in April.*
* For the record, I don't think this year's team is winning the MLS Cup--but even if we are going all the way, we aren't going to win it in April.