Half an hour after the latest Sporting Kansas City home victory, another shutout inside Children’s Mercy Park, a small media contingent surrounded the locker of defender Saad Abdul-Salaam.
Before the first question was asked, a teammate intervened.
“Hey, make sure you introduce yourself, Saad.”
The quip provoked a smile from Abdul-Salaam. The anomaly was not lost on him. There he sat in front of his locker, the center of attention, after months of watching it neighbor him instead.
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In the initial 14 matches of the season, he played only two minutes on the field. A mere 120 seconds. In the victory against Minnesota last weekend, he not only played the full 90 minutes, he added his first career goal across three MLS seasons.
“I can’t even really remember the play,” Abdul-Salaam said. “It all happened so fast. Everything today did.”
Foreseen circumstances have plugged Abdul-Salaam into the lineup. With right back Graham Zusi with the United States national team, a spot opened along Sporting Kansas City’s back line.
A familiar spot. Abdul-Salaam started 26 matches at right back in 2016. He contributed six assists.
But Zusi’s migration to defense relocated Abdul-Salaam to the bench. And with Zusi settling in as a defender, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for Abdul-Salaam to leave the sideline.
“As a player, you just have to be professional and try to keep yourself in shape by practicing every day with the guys,” Abdul-Salaam said. “And you hope the opportunity comes.”
The initial time an opportunity indeed arrived — when the coaching staff tried to give Zusi a day off last month — Sporting KC instead asked Igor Juliao to fill in. That prompted rumors that Abdul-Salaam was on the trade block a night before the initial trade window closed. Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes called those rumors “ridiculous” and “untrue.”
In reality, Abdul-Salaam had been outplayed — or perhaps simply outworked — in the week of practice leading up to the match.
This time, he secured the chance, and he made the most of it, contributing to the shutout and adding the late goal.
“I thought he did a really good job, and I’m happy that he got the goal for himself as well because I thought the last month or so he’s been working pretty hard,” Vermes said. “This was a good opportunity, and I think one of the reasons that he played well because he prepared himself well.”
It’s likely Abdul-Salaam will be in the lineup again Saturday, when Sporting KC plays host to the Montreal Impact at 7 p.m. at Children’s Mercy Park.
But it won’t be a lengthy stay. Zusi will return next week. He’s not near being supplanted in the starting XI.
“I’m not worried about that,” Abdul-Salaam said. “I just try to keep myself ready.”
In the meantime, some celebrating. In the moments after last weekend’s match, teammate Dom Dwyer motioned for Abdul-Salaam to join him in an office bordering the locker room.
As is Dwyer’s custom for first-time goal scorer, he passed around shots to observe the occasion. The team signed a soccer ball and placed it in Abdul-Salaam’s cubby.
“I’ll probably put it in my room — probably hang it up,” Abdul-Salaam said. “I’ll definitely keep it around.”