The first time the ball found Lawrence Olum, who made his first MLS start Saturday in a 2-0 win for Sporting Kansas City against Toronto FC, the Kenyan-born defender had the ball roll up his leg and dribble out of bounds for a throw-in.
It was an understandably nervy touch for Olum, 27, who started in place of All-Star Matt Besler and had logged only 79 total minutes in seven previous regular-season appearances with Sporting KC since joining the club last season.
But once that was out of the way, Olum settled in and helped Sporting KC, 9-3-1, record its sixth shutout of the season and first in MLS action since a 1-0 win April 14 against Real Salt Lake.
“He did his job,” said Sporting KC central defender Aurelien Collin, who started alongside Olum and anchored the defense. “He was strong in the air and didn’t lose almost any balls on the field. It’s always hard to jump in like that, especially against a team like Toronto when you don’t know what to expect.
“It was a hard game, but he did his job and I’m very proud of him. It was a pleasure to play with him.”
Good thing, too, because it’s a back-line pairing likely to remain intact for at least another week and maybe more as Besler continues to recover from an appendectomy June 8.
“First of all, it was important for him,” Sporting KC goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen said. “He proved to himself that he could do it at this level. I don’t think anybody doubted he could. I’ve seen him play with the reserve team, and I train with him every day. He’s a strong, solid player, but it was a good game for him.”
Olum has logged most of his minutes at defensive midfielder. He had even started there during a third-round win in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against Orlando City SC — the club he played for before joining Sporting KC.
“I had mostly started at defensive mid this season, so I had people talking behind me and now I was the one talking to people in front of me,” Olum said. “That was a little different.”
Still, aside from a couple tense moments, including one when an improperly executed offside trap allowed Eric Avila to get behind the defense for a shot that ultimately clanged between the two posts and bounced out, Olum was solid in his starting debut.
“After I got the rhythm, I felt pretty good,” Olum said. “There was good communication between the two of us, and we tried to keep everything in front of us. We had to get the timing right. It’s the first time we’ve done it in a game, but once we got our rhythm and communication going, it was pretty comfortable.”
Manager Peter Vermes praised Olum’s performance as “tough” and “strong.”
“(Toronto forwards Danny) Koevermans and (Ryan) Johnson are both big boys,” Vermes said. “It’s not easy to play against those two guys, but I thought they (Olum and Collin) established their dominance pretty early and that continued throughout the game. It was a good partnership.”
Sporting KC certainly hopes it will continue to be a productive pairing moving forward.
“I’ve played with Besler for a year, so of course we know each other better,” Collin said. “But I’ve trained with ‘Lo’ and have trust in that guy. He’s a very good player, a good soldier, who knows what he has to do. It’s fun to be on the field with him.
“It’s no problem, and more confidence will come game after game. … We’re on to the next one, and we’ll grow his confidence. We’ll be OK, you know.”