The pageantry was on full display, a celebration of fire and electric guitars to signal opening day at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan.
The goals were icing on the cake.
Sporting Kansas City opened its home slate with a convincing 2-1 victory over Vancouver Whitecaps FC to move to 2-0-0 on the season and first place in the MLS Western Conference.
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Here are three thoughts on the match:
1. First 45 minutes were the best from Sporting KC in quite some time
It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the first half was about close as one can get, and the best Sporting KC has shown in recent memory.
Two goals had a lot to do with it, sure, but it was the involvement from front to back that told the real story.
“I think it was extremely dynamic,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said of the first half. “… Our commitment was tremendous. I thought we were patient as well.”
Dom Dwyer’s 28-yard blast was a moment of individual brilliance, but it doesn’t highlight Connor Hallisey pressuring Deybi Flores high enough to force a poor back pass. Dwyer put away an excellent pass across the face of goal from Chance Myers for his second of the night, but not without Graham Zusi delivering a perfect diagonal ball, or Roger Espinoza’s presence allowing the fullbacks to push up the field.
Sporting KC dominated the stat sheet with 65 percent of the possession and an insane 81 percent passing accuracy rate from 263 passes in the first half. Sporting held a 7-2 advantage on open play crosses and duels won at 29-22. Vancouver was compact defensively to open the game, so Sporting KC worked both sides of the field to open up passing angles and scoring opportunities.
Even when the Whitecaps started to spread out and push forward, the defensive triangle of Matt Besler, Nuno Coelho and Soni Mustivar were there to squash the build-up.
2. Lax spell during second half left the door open for Vancouver
The Whitecaps didn’t deserve a draw, but the visitors saw a window of opportunity midway through the second half.
Sporting KC relaxed in the second half, pinging passes sideline to sideline rather than up the field. It was a natural response to a big lead and a man advantage — and positive in that Sporting KC had 71 percent of the possession in the second half — but perhaps too relaxed at times.
Sensing the foot had been taken off the gas, Vancouver shifted its focus out wide in an attempt to make something happen.
Something did happen — with Octavio Rivero drawing a penalty on Tim Melia in the 70th minute — and all of a sudden the cushion disappeared; the Whitecaps suddenly were on the front foot threatening for a 10-minute spell.
“It was probably more of my fault,” Vermes said. “I told the guys, when we went out for the second half, that I wanted them to let them come out a little bit and then we would start to press them. What happened was, though, is that they dropped more guys behind the ball, and basically became two lines. It was hard to get any instructions out, so it was on me more than anything else.”
3. Roger Espinoza: the vital cog in the Sporting KC machine
Add “Honduran Train” to the list of Roger Espinoza nicknames.
“The guy works,” Vermes said. “He just keeps going, and it’s hard for players because he never stops. When guys are taking rests, he’s still going. He’s also really strong. This league is a really physical league, so you have to be a man on the field. You can’t be a little boy. He’s definitely a man. He’s been through it, and the last two games he’s been big for us in the middle of the field. He’s the ‘Honduran Train.’”
Espinoza has been the MVP early this season, which may surprise some given his scoring output. However, so much of what he does comes behind the scenes. On Saturday, Espinoza connected on all but five passes to go along with two tackles and six recoveries.
What makes Espinoza so important, though, is his understanding of the ebb and flow of the game. His ability to roam freely in the midfield and read the game in front of him would be unparalleled on this team if it weren’t for Benny Feilhaber. His presence alone lessens the load on guys like Hallisey and Quintilla’s shoulders. It also allows the fullbacks to get into the attack. (And as a last option, Espinoza has developed a keen skill to pick up as the second runner in the box).
“Everybody has a role on the team,” Espinoza said. “My role in the midfield is to do both things: help the defenders and help the attacking guys. It’s a great position — I love it. Anywhere I can help, I’ll do it.”
In case you forgot over the last week, Tim Melia is still a boss.
Tate Steinlage: @TheFull90