Half an hour after Sporting Kansas City rode a late goal to its second straight win last weekend, Ike Opara walked through the north tunnel at Children’s Mercy Park and eventually made his way to the visiting locker room. For years, his nameplate occupied a spot above a home locker, and this particular post-game stroll 40 yards down the hallway prompted the moment to sink in.
“I haven’t gotten used to that,” he said.
Fitting. Because neither has Sporting KC.
The defense has been uneven in its replacement of Opara, trying $1 million center back Andreu Fontas, then Hungarian international Botond Barath. But more recently, performance and injuries have caused Sporting to turn to an unlikely solution.
The MLS SuperDraft.
Graham Smith, to be precise. In an era in which the benefit of the league’s draft is becoming closer to obsolete, Smith, the 18th pick in 2018, has started to find a home on Sporting’s back line during the stretch run of the season.
“I feel like people are sometimes quick to count out draft picks just because they came from college soccer,” Smith said. “There’s definitely a learning curve. But at the same time, no one is saying it’s impossible. It doesn’t matter where you come from; you’re going to be given an opportunity, and you have to make the most of it.”
Sporting KC has won back-to-back home matches, allowing only one goal in those two games with Smith sharing the center of the defense alongside captain Matt Besler. Another home match awaits Saturday against the Houston Dynamo.
Smith represents the bigger picture. The long-term play.
Since being drafted last winter, he has appeared in 41 matches with the Swope Park Rangers, the Sporting-owned USL affiliate. The club is in only its fourth year of existence. Without it, Smith’s fight to stick on an MLS roster would have become more difficult. Might have never happened. Its presence allows for something Sporting didn’t previously have.
“To me, that’s the key to all this,” Sporting coach Peter Vermes said. “Just keep playing games. Keep playing games.”
As he started regularly for Swope Park, Smith was acutely aware the right people were scouting his every move. Games. Practices.
That’s what sparked this chance. Availability, necessity, familiarity. But the coaches felt he’s earned the opportunity, too.
And because of his consistency in the Swope Park lineup, he’s been more prepared than the previous model would have allowed. That’s why, even with room to grow, Smith has stepped in as a starter and made an immediate impact. He helped secure Sporting’s shutout against Minnesota last weekend, one week after scoring the game-winning goal against San Jose.
It’s enough to make him likely to stick in the lineup Saturday.
“If you’re thinking this is your only opportunity, you’re going to psych yourself out,” Smith said. “Yeah, maybe looking back now before my first game, I wonder how I was not freaking out. But at the same time, this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is why you’ve been playing all those USL minutes. It helps you to not stress about stuff like that.”
Sporting’s chase to the playoff line over the final seven games will require a steady presence in the back line.
It hasn’t been perfect with Smith, but it’s improved with time. Vermes says he’s been better with each appearance. During halftime of the San Jose win, Vermes harped on Smith to play with more of an edge. The conversation, an ongoing one, has carried over to the ensuing weeks.
“One of the key ingredients to be a defender (is) you have to be tough,” Vermes said. “He’s showing more and more signs of that. (With) his size, you have to dominate in the air, but to dominate in the air, you have to go through people. That’s all I meant. He’s getting tougher in that aspect, and he’s getting tougher to play against.”