Sporting Kansas City’s defense is at it again.
During five games in late March and early April last season, Sporting KC kept opponents off the scoreboard for 415 consecutive minutes.
It was arguably the most dominant stretch for a defense that led Major League Soccer with 15 shutouts and a league-low 27 goals allowed last season.
Once again, Sporting KC’s defense is streaking and will carry a 339-minute shutout streak into tonight’s 7:30 showdown with D.C. United, 1-2-1, at Sporting Park.
“Most of the group is the same as last year, so we expected to be just as good,” central defender Aurelien Collin said.
Still, there were enough personnel changes — most notably the loss of midfielders Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar — that more than a few eyebrows were raised when Sporting KC, 2-1-2, leaked three goals in its first two games.
Of course, those fears now have been allayed by a run three straight shutouts.
“We’re playing the same way and have been very good defensively,” Collin said. “We’ve allowed three goals in five games, but it was a gift with two of them. We’ve been very focused defensively and very compact from the striker to the defense.”
Claudio Bieler, an Argentinian striker who was signed as the fourth designated player in club history, has received attention for popping in three goals, but he’s also been a strong presence defensively.
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber’s reputation has been built around his creative genius on the attack and, while he doesn’t bring the same hair-on-fire approach to winning balls Espinoza did, is adjusting quickly to his defensive duties in coach Peter Vermes’ aggressive 4-3-3 system.
“The new guys within our team are really starting to understand how we want to press when we lose the ball,” Vermes said. “That pressing nature of our front guys makes it very predictable for our defenders, which ultimately makes their job easier.”
Of course, it remains a work in progress still, but the results — especially during the last 339 minutes — are encouraging.
“The feeling that we have and our mentality about defense, the potential that we have with this team defensively, it’s all there,” reigning MLS defender of the year Matt Besler said. “It’s the same as last year from that standpoint. No matter who we bring in, they are required to buy-in defensively and required to buy into the team-first attitude.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment, certainly for the back four that returned intact, is working in defensive midfielder Uri Rosell as Cesar’s replacement.
Last season, Cesar, a crafty veteran and clinical tackler, was basically chained to the central defense, while Rosell, who is a better passer and gives Sporting KC more options in building from the back, is a little more adventurous in pushing forward.
“It’s a minor adjustment that we’ve had to make and, the more games we play together, the better we’re going to get,” Besler said. “I have to talk to Uri a little more and make sure I pull him in or pull him left or right. He does tend to wander to different places on the field, but that’s a good thing. Right now, I feel like we’re at a good level and we feel pretty comfortable.”
Still, to a man, Sporting KC insists that it won’t use last season as a benchmark.
“The benchmark, as I tell the guys, is that we still want to be in that top three in goals-against average,” Vermes said. “Obviously, what comes with that is shutouts somewhere along the line, but the big thing is we’ve got to be able to limit the number of goals we give up. That gives us the opportunity to be in the game and score points.”
In other words, the shutout streak isn’t the streak with which Sporting KC is concerned.
“To be honest, I haven’t even thought about (the shutout streak),” defender Seth Sinovic said. “Hopefully, we can get a winning streak going. We’d much rather have a streak of winning games. Obviously, those shutouts help get the wins, but wins are most important.”