As the streak lengthens, and as an MLS franchise distinguished by its consistency fails to find much of it, Sporting Kansas City players speak simply of the solution. A return to form, they insist, will require a return to the defensive devotion that guided them through the past half-decade.
At long last, signs of that emerged Saturday night, albeit tarnished by a cruel ending.
For the first time in five home matches, Sporting KC held an opponent to fewer than two goals, and the defense was within two minutes of a clean sheet before Vancouver struck in the 94th minute for a 1-1 draw. The club used the same personnel that has generally appeared unorganized, overmatched and in disarray.
Well, save one.
Matt Besler. The captain returned to the field for the first time in a month.
“He was the top man in the game,” Sporting coach Peter Vermes said. “He was fantastic in all aspects — his reading of the game, his closing in on guys, his covering the channel, aerial duals, passing, just command. He was the top man today.”
Besler suffered a hamstring injury on April 20 in San Jose. Without him, Sporting KC allowed seven goals over the next two matches before a 1-0 loss to D.C. United last week. Many of those goals arrived from point-blank chances and from self-inflicted mistakes.
On Saturday, there was a calmness back within the group. A security blanket, of sorts.
“I’ve always said Bes is one of the most important, if not the most important, player on this team,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “When he’s playing at his best, he’s essentially a midfielder playing center back. He’s able to control the tempo of the game. He’s able to control the possession that we create. It was more of the same.”
With nearly a dozen players on Sporting’s injured list, Besler accelerated the tempo of his comeback. He’s battled a hamstring injury earlier in his career that sidelined him longer. Almost immediately after suffering this one, he convened with the training staff about a hastened rehab.
“We don’t really have a choice. I knew right away, as soon as I got injured, this was going to be a situation where I was going to be forced to push the recovery process to try to get back on the field as soon as possible,” Besler said. “Whenever I’m feeling close to being able to play, there’s going to be a time where I’m going to have to grind through some things and just get back on the field.
“It’s a frustrating time right now. It’s a time where you want to be on the field working with your teammates and getting through it together. So anytime you’re not able to do that and you’re forced to watch on the sideline, it’s tough. I just tried to do my best to get myself on the field and try to give out team a boost.”
The boost came, even if the winless streak was prolonged. Sporting KC does not have a victory in its past seven MLS matches.
But Vancouver didn’t get much of anything going Saturday, just three shots on goal despite playing nearly half an hour with a man advantage. Goalkeeper Tim Melia pointed toward one player for the team’s best defensive outing in more than a month.
“Besler is hands-down the best center back in the league,” Melia said. “He’s just calm on the ball. His decision-making is good — when to step, when to drop. He’s smart with aerial battles and gets his body into people. He’s just good. He’s the rock of our team. We’re happy he’s back. Now we just gotta get going.”