During a recent Sporting Kansas City match, an injured player prompted a stoppage in the action, and midfielder Felipe Gutierrez walked to his sideline to speak with coach Peter Vermes.
“I’m not playing well,” he said. “I’m not playing like myself.”
Only a few weeks earlier, Gutierrez had returned from sports hernia surgery, an operation that sidelined him for three months and halted a sizzling introduction to Major League Soccer.
The progress toward finding his early-season form was slow. The process had grown frustrating.
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“Relax, man,” Vermes responded. “It’s going to take a little time. You’re getting there. Just keep going.”
On Saturday, with six weeks left on the regular season schedule, Gutierrez showed a glimpse of his old self. He scored the only goal in Sporting KC’s 1-0 victory against visiting Orlando City SC.
But the signs of encouragement derived from more than one play, more than the game-winning touch. Gutierrez was back to operating as a fixture in Sporting KC’s possession-dominant style of play. He was credited with 60 passes, a season-high in 12 starts, and he completed 52 of them, the second most of the year. The map showed he navigated the entire field.
“He’s getting closer,” Vermes said. “It takes awhile, because with that injury, you’re still playing with some pain. It doesn’t go away right away. It gets a lot, lot better, but it’s not perfect. And even once you get to a point where you’re over it, you’re still trying to get soccer fit.”
Gutierrez dismissed the notion that the injury is affecting his play, the tone of a player avoiding an excuse. But the impact has been evident.
After Sporting KC signed Gutierrez, a Chilean native, in February, he scored five goals in a spell of four matches. Sporting KC was 3-0-1 in those games. He was named the MLS player of the month.
When Gutierrez is on, in other words, Sporting KC is on, too.
Yet even as it waited for him to return to full health and fitness, Sporting KC moved back up to No. 2 in the Western Conference ahead of Saturday’s trip to last-place San Jose.
“I’m just happy to help the team win,” Gutierrez said after his goal Saturday against Orlando. “Everyone (contributed), not just me. I am just happy to do my part.”
The plan was for Gutierrez to play a major role in Sporting KC’s season. The club made him its highest-paid player in franchise history.
When healthy, he is an impact midfielder. He has proven that. For a team riding a recent surge — 15 points in its last six matches — Gutierrez finding his form would offer a significant bonus for the stretch run.
Sitting one point shy of FC Dallas for first place in the Western Conference with seven matches left, Sporting KC plays three of its next five matches against teams currently sitting below the playoff line.
“I think you’re seeing him get closer and closer to being that guy again,” Vermes said. “I think getting the goal helps him a lot — mentally, that will let him know he’s getting back to himself. It’s a measuring stick. It was an important game for him to see something go right.”