A herd of media members surrounded Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler at his locker Wednesday night, nearly half an hour after the club suffered its first home loss of the season. Benny Feilhaber waited for the mess to clear, then walked to Besler’s locker and conveyed a two-sentence message.
“Go get ’em Bes,” he said. “Go tear it up, man.”
Besler extended his hand for a firm handshake. A few moments later, he was gone. Off to join the United States men’s national team for its pre-World Cup camp at Stanford University in California.
His likely won’t return for another six weeks. And that could spell trouble for the defending MLS champions.
Sporting KC will be without its top four options at center back when it travels to face the Chicago Fire at 2 p.m. Sunday. Aurelien Collin will miss the match with a hamstring injury he suffered during the second half of Wednesday’s loss to Philadelphia. Ike Opara is out for the season after surgery last month to repair his ankle. And Lawrence Olum was called up this week to join the Kenyan national team for matches Sunday and May 30.
“It’s a challenge, but we’ll deal with it,” coach Peter Vermes said. “It’s a little bit of a challenge for the group, but we’ve got more than enough guys that have capabilities of playing the game. We’ll figure out some concoction.”
Yeah, but who?
The only true center back available for Sunday’s match is 17-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown, a homegrown defender who has never appeared in an MLS match. Vermes fell short of committing to taking Palmer-Brown on his first MLS road trip but acknowledged there may be few other options.
While the club has confidence in his future, it preferred to pair Palmer-Brown with a veteran central defender in his first MLS match.
That’s not an option Sunday.
“Is it the best situation for him to step into? I don’t know,” Vermes said. “... Sometimes you get forced into it maybe a little quicker than maybe you want to. I’m not always right, but I think the kid can play.”
Palmer-Brown has drawn considerable praise from his defensive teammates after training sessions, most notably for his ability to learn the system quickly. He has spent time on the United States under-20 men’s national team, playing up four years in age.
But an MLS match is a different animal.
“The speed of play is going to be different,” Palmer-Brown said. “I’ve learned that coming into the league and practicing out here. But I think it’s going to be tough for me to adjust to how big and strong and fast everyone is. But I feel like I’ll be able to do that pretty well with the coaching I’ve got from Peter and the guys.”
The club may have other options, too.
Outside back Chance Myers played in the central defense in college, and defensive midfielder Uri Rosell also has past club experience playing there. Rosell, however, is a game-time decision to play Sunday, Vermes said.
Sporting KC could also tweak its formations to better suit its personnel.
“Anybody’s capable,” Myers said. “There are a ton of guys who are more than willing to step in and look up to the challenge.”
If it’s Palmer-Brown asked to take on the challenge, he says he’s ready.
“I’m not shying away from it,” he said.
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SPORTING KC AT CHICAGO FIRE
WHEN/WHERE: 2 p.m. Sunday; at Toyota Park, Chicago
TV/RADIO: KCMI (Ch. 38); WHB (810 AM)
ABOUT SPORTING KC: Coming off its most lethargic outing of the season in a 2-1 loss to Philadelphia, Sporting KC is forced into a makeshift lineup as it tries to regain its form. Matt Besler and Graham Zusi are away on national team duty, and replacing that consistent production is a daunting task.
ABOUT CHICAGO: The Fire picked up their first win of the season last week in nine tries, a 5-4 victory against the New York Red Bulls. Chicago was the last team in the MLS to win a game. It has allowed 18 goals in nine matches, the worst ratio in the Eastern Conference.
BOTTOM LINE: It could be a fun day for the offenses, with Sporting KC's lack of experience in the center of its back line and the Fire's defensive struggles over the first two months of the season.
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, Chicago 2