The exterior of the Sporting Kansas City front line was occupied by a pair of United States men’s national team members, their combined salaries eclipsing $1 million. From his home in Kansas City, forward Jacob Peterson sat and watched teammates Brad Davis and Graham Zusi on TV, buried behind both of them on the depth chart.
In reality, this was the blueprint Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes drew up in the offseason — matching Davis and Zusi with striker Dom Dwyer to form the offensive attack. And that didn’t leave much room Peterson, a 12-year MLS veteran who, by his own self admission, isn’t known for his precise finishing.
So there Peterson sat — initially at home and eventually on the bench — for the first 11 games of the season.
“Look, I’d be lying if I said I was happy,” Peterson said. “That was the longest I’ve gone without playing in my career. It wasn’t something I enjoyed. I was discouraged. I was mad. I was all those things.
“But you have to realize that complaining will do nothing to change that.”
An offseason foot injury prevented Peterson from entering preseason training camp in top form. A couple of months on the bench motivated him to rediscover it.
And then perhaps surpass it.
Peterson has started 10 straight matches — with Sporting KC earning points in seven of them — and he has scored goals in back-to-back games for the first time in a decade.
Sure, injuries to teammates have opened the opportunity for playing time. But nothing has helped the cause more than Peterson himself, who is also battling a minor leg injury this week.
“Jake’s a guy who has worked his ass off,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “One thing that I notice that I don’t think the ordinary fan notices is the quality of his runs off the ball. He can get into really good spots, or he can open up space for somebody else if the defender (follows) him.
“It’s really good to see him get rewarded for something he works on constantly. He’s an integral part of that offensive setup.”
That’s something Vermes recognized from his first encounter with Peterson. In 2005, Peterson represented the United States under-20 men’s national team, for which Vermes was an assistant coach. Peterson scored 12 goals in 21 games.
“I’ve always been impressed with his unyielding determination in the game. He’s relentless,” Vermes said. “ His movement off the ball is so good — I think it’s as good as anyone on our team.
“A lot of players won’t move off the ball because they want the ball. They don’t open up the play for someone else to get the ball. You have to be selfless in that regard, and he is.”
When Peterson was selected by Colorado in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft, he actually arrived with a goal-scoring reputation. He tallied 30 goals over three years with Indiana, leading the Hoosiers to national championships in 2003 and 2004. He was named the 2003 most outstanding offensive player at the NCAA Division I College Cup.
“I was never the best finisher. It maybe took me a couple of tries,” Peterson said.
The scoring touch has emerged this season, though certainly not without its bumps in the road. In back-to-back games, Peterson has scored goals that would rate highly on the level of difficultly.
But as he analyzes his own play, the scoring totals are rarely mentioned.
“I’ve adapted and realized I’m probably not going to be an All-Star in this league. I’m not going to be the one all the fans love,” Peterson said. “As long as my teammates and the coaching staff appreciates the type of work I do, that’s the most important thing to me.”
Lately, it’s been a mixture of both. Peterson has scored three goals this season — all of them in Sporting KC wins. That matches his total from his previous three seasons combined.
And he has been a fixture in the Sporting KC starting lineup.
“People can say he’s not this or he’s not that,” Sporting KC forward Dom Dwyer said. “He doesn’t care. Look, he’s playing every single week for a reason, and he’s scoring goals now. What else can you ask for?”