One year ago, Sporting Kansas City was taking Major League Soccer by storm.
Sporting KC opened the season with seven straight wins — a surprise to some and a clear signal to everyone else that the 2011 Eastern Conference regular-season championship was no fluke.
When Sporting KC, 1-1-2, kicks off under the lights for the first time in 2013 at 7:30 tonight at Sporting Park, its opponent will be this year’s early-season darling.
The Montreal Impact, 4-0-0, is the only unbeaten and untied club remaining less than a month into the MLS season.
As an expansion team last year, the Impact went 12-16-6, finishing seventh in the East, but Montreal has served notice that it will figure much more prominently in the playoff chase in 2013.
The Impact, whose first road victory came in a 2-0 stunner last May at Sporting Park, has built a five-point lead in the East only four games into its second MLS season.
“Arguably, they’re the best team in the league at the moment,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said.
Still, that doesn’t mean Sporting KC will play timidly against Montreal.
“It’s a very challenging game for us to measure ourselves in different ways,” Vermes said. “Obviously, we have the utmost respect, but I don’t think our team fears anyone.”
In fact, with the Impact already having notched road wins at Portland and Seattle, Sporting KC is ecstatic at the prospect of a team coming to town and opening up the game.
“They’re a team playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said midfielder Graham Zusi, who returned Wednesday from international duty with the U.S. men’s national team and is expected to be available. “… They’re coming in here with the idea that they’re going to get another win. But that’s probably a good thing for us, knowing that they’ll probably come in and try to play, which will give us a chance to play our game as well.”
During Sporting KC’s home opener two weeks ago, the Chicago Fire bunkered in and never made an effort to possess the ball or push forward in any substantive way during a 0-0 draw.
Montreal isn’t likely to duplicate that same dull game plan.
“I don’t think it’s their style really to sit back,” Zusi said. “They have some dynamic guys up top and in the middle of the pitch who can open the game up, so I imagine they would.”
Montreal forward Marco Di Vaio might be 36, but he’s playing with vim and vigor. He has scored two goals this season and will be a handful up top in first-year coach Marco Schallibaum’s 4-1-4-1 system.
“You have to stay tuned in,” said center back Matt Besler, who also returned Wednesday from duty with the U.S. men. “He’s always looking to break right away. As soon as Montreal wins the ball, he’s on your back shoulder and right on the offside line.”
Of course, Di Vaio is hardly Montreal’s only threat.
Defensive midfielder Patrice Bernier has a goal and three assists already, while former Wizards midfielder Davy Arnaud and Felipe Martins each have a goal and an assist on the young season.
“They like to get a lot of numbers behind the ball and then love to try to catch you when you’re off-balance,” Vermes said.
While Sporting KC isn’t overwhelmed by Montreal’s fast start, there’s no doubt Vermes’ crew realizes it’s a big game — as big as early-season games can be in a 34-game season.
“Me and Graham talked about (the Montreal game) on the plane actually,” Besler said. “This was the day after the U.S.-Mexico game, but we talked about how excited we were to get back and to play Montreal at home. We want to take them down. They have a big X on their back and we can’t wait for the game.”