The adage stretches across all sports — the one alluding to defense serving as the backbone for championship teams — and as tiring as it may have become, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes rarely misses an opportunity to stress its validity.
So why spend a critical offseason instead replenishing the offense? Well, the tweak to the defense actually came last October. As its playoff footing grew tenuous, Sporting KC made a change to the back line.
For the final two matches of the regular season, Vermes reverted to Seth Sinovic and Matt Besler on the left side of his defense. Sporting KC replied with consecutive shutouts.
The lineup has stuck for 2017, and in the first three games of the season, Sporting KC has allowed just one goal.
“We grew up together and played on the same club team, so I think we’ve always had a similar feel for the game,” Sinovic said of playing with Besler. “There’s a comfort level there for us. We can read each other throughout the game.”
The combination of injuries and a descent down the depth chart cost Besler regular playing time last season. For Sinovic, similar circumstances interrupted the previous two years.
But when they share the field, the statistics tell a convincing story. The two have started 17 matches together since the opening night of the 2015 season. In those matches, Sporting KC allowed 0.82 goals per game. By contrast: In the 54 matches that one (or both) of them missed, Sporting KC allowed 1.35 goals per game.
“I just think they have a good partnership,” Vermes said. “They know each other’s tendencies because they’ve done it so long together.”
The opportunities were much more rare over the past two seasons, though, especially for Sinovic. After three straight years with 30-plus starts, he made only 16 starts in 2015 and 2016 combined.
Vermes turned to Jimmy Medranda at left back last season. Medranda was oft-praised as the club’s breakout player of the year, which made the late-season change to Sinovic all the more surprising.
“Jimmy is a very explosive guy who (goes) after it,” Vermes said. “Sometimes as a defender, you can’t do that. You have to be a little bit more delayed. You have to have patience a little bit. Seth has more of that.”
Medranda has since found a new home in the starting lineup at wing, and he could even see time in the midfield Friday, when Sporting KC travels to face Toronto FC.
In the meantime, Sinovic is relishing an opportunity that once seemed in doubt.
“You put so much pressure on yourself sometimes, and I’ve definitely done that throughout my career. But when you don’t get the opportunities as often as you want, you tend to enjoy them more when they come,” Sinovic said. “When it came around the last few games of last year, I just really enjoyed myself.
“I think that’s been the key for me, aside from staying healthy — just enjoy being out there and understand how lucky we are to play soccer for a living.”