In a six-day span last week, Sporting Kansas City used Matt Besler’s first goal in five seasons to procure its most dramatic victory of the year, and then it celebrated his fifth MLS All-Star selection.
But on Sunday, as Sporting KC played host to New York City FC, Besler opened the game on the bench.
The man who has worn the Sporting Kansas City captain’s armband for the past two-plus seasons has been absent from the starting lineup for two straight matches. He’s healthy, too.
Coach Peter Vermes instead has simply opted for a center-back pairing of Ike Opara and Lawrence Olum. The intentions appear to be more than sending a message. When asked about his lineups, Vermes was rather matter-of-fact about the decision, opting for an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it response.
“I like the rhythm of play we’re in,” he said.
On Sunday, Sporting KC used a back line of Jimmy Medranda, Olum, Opara and Saad Abdul-Salaam. It’s the fifth straight match those four have represented the last line of defense.
Sporting KC is unbeaten over those five, playing its best soccer of the season, allowing just 1.00 goals per game. Four of the five matches have come against teams currently in the playoff picture, including the top-two scoring teams in the Western Conference (FC Dallas and LA Galaxy) and the second- and third-best scoring teams in the East (New York City FC and Montreal).
“We talked about getting back to a foundation of what’s really important — and that’s defending,” Vermes said. “We want to be a really difficult team to play against when it comes to trying to break us down.”
Olum, who spent the initial portion of the season as a second option at defensive midfielder behind Soni Mustivar, showed no signs of relinquishing his new starting center back job Sunday. In the 3-1 win against New York City FC, Olum led the team in touches (84) and passes (81), and that computed to a 90.1 percent passing accuracy.
Besler, one of two designated players on the Sporting KC roster, did not enter the match Sunday, one week after he subbed for an injured Olum against Columbus and responded with the game-winning goal in stoppage time. Besler has started only once since returning from his stint with the United States men’s national team for Copa America: a U.S. Open Cup match that Sporting KC lost 3-1.
Even then, he did not wear the captain’s armband. Roger Espinoza took over as the team’s captain while Besler was with the Americans, and he has yet to relinquish the role. Vermes was mum on how long Espinoza would retain the title.
Vermes is equally silent on his future plans with his back line. And more competition is on the way. Nuno Coelho is healthy again after two muscle strains kept him out of the lineup for five matches. Coelho and Besler formulated the top center-back pairing for the first two months of the season.
The upcoming slate offers more minutes to disperse. Sporting KC is in the midst of three matches in seven days, with a trip to Chicago on Wednesday and Colorado on Saturday. Coming off season-ending surgery last April, Opara is unlikely play all three.
The beneficiaries of the added playing time remain unclear. An MLS All-Star is well-rested.