The last piece to the puzzle for Sporting Kansas City’s defense cracked the starting lineup for good June 12 in Dallas last year.
That’s when Seth Sinovic stepped in at left back and went the distance in a 4-1 win Pizza Hut Park, joining right back Chance Myers and centerbacks Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, who had established themselves as starters during the preceding three months.
That quartet lined up in front of goalkeeper Jimmy Nieslen and behind defensive midfielder Julio Cesar — the other key cogs to the club’s defense — for most of the remaining 24 games as Sporting KC made a run from last place to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Far from breeding contempt, that familiarity is paying huge dividends now for Sporting KC, which has opened the season with back-to-back shutouts.
“The experience these guys gained together, especially last year, has been extremely beneficial,” coach Peter Vermes said. “They have become a unit and they’re not just defending in ones and twos now. They are defending as a line of four with a defensive midfielder in front of them. Tactically, we’re a much smarter team.”
Sporting KC, 2-0-0, has a well-earned reputation as a dangerous attacking team, one of three MLS squads to crack the 50-goal plateau last season (the Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls were the others).
But Sporting KC knows that to reach its ultimate goal — winning the MLS Cup — defense will be equally critical, if not more important.
“It’s important to be known as a good defensive team, too,” said Nielsen, who posted seven shutouts and a 1.14 goals-against average last season. “Normally, teams that win their championship are top three on both sides. They have a top-three defense and a top-three offense, so everything is important.”
That’s why Vermes’ top priority entering the season was cutting down the team’s goals-against average. Sporting KC conceded 40 goals last season.
Only one other team in the East, the Philadelphia Union, allowed fewer goals, but the top four teams in the Western Conference, including tonight’s opponent at Livestrong Sporting Park, FC Dallas, were more airtight on defense.
“To be successful, you have to be in a situation where are very stingy when it comes to goals,” Vermes said. “It’s something we put a huge emphasis on in the preseason.”
Of course, the preseason results were spotty as Sporting KC posted only one shutout in seven matches, including an abysmal three-goal performance against the Vancouver Whitecaps during the Disney Pro Soccer Classic.
“Everything was very nonchalant about that (Vancouver) game: movement off the ball and finding our spots defensively,” Sinovic said. “It was probably a little bit of a wake-up call for us going into the season, and obviously we have responded pretty well.”
Vermes emphasizes a whole-team philosophy on offense and defense, with the backs getting fairly involved in the attack and strikers expected to track back in an effort to disrupt an opponent’s buildup.
Still, the primary responsibility for keeping clean sheets falls on the back line, which is why time together in games is so critical.
“We didn’t have to find our team and find our style,” Besler said. “We already have that, because we already knew the way each player played and we have our style. We hit the ground running and we have a whole season under our belts, which makes us a lot more comfortable.”
Collin described it as being on autopilot, knowing where his defensive teammates will be most of the time without having to think about it.
Sinovic and Besler provide a calm presence in the back. Neither gets rattled easily and both are strong on the ball and in one-on-one situations.
Collin is a hyper-aggressive player at times, which resulted in more than a few cautions last season, but he is adapting to the MLS style and settling down as his comfort in Vermes’ system and with his teammates grows.
Meanwhile, Myers, a former No. 1 overall pick, has matured immensely as a player the last few seasons and is one of the league’s top attacking right backs.
“It takes time to be an outstanding team, but this group has been together for a while now and we know each other,” Nielsen said.