After winning the MLS championship last December, Sporting Kansas City opted for a relatively quiet offseason. It made only four acquisitions, and none was deemed high profile. Or so it seemed.
As it turns out, a pair of international additions — defender Igor Julião and midfielder Toni Dovale — are starting to make a loud impact while Sporting KC searches for balance in the wake of a rash of injuries and international absences.
Dovale and Julião played the full 90 minutes Tuesday in a 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls, and each drew praise from coach Peter Vermes. Dovale scored the first goal of his MLS career in the ninth minute, seven minutes after Julião came within an eyelash of the same feat.
The contributions are coming perhaps quicker than even Vermes initially expected.
“They’re both very intelligent soccer players,” Vermes said. “Sometimes you get guys that are good athletes, and you’re trying to push them toward the good-soccer-player side. These guys are good soccer players, and that’s the reason they’ve adapted so well.”
They figure to remain key components of the lineup for the foreseeable future. Sporting KC travels to face D.C. United at 6 p.m. Saturday trying to break a four-match winless streak.
As midfielder Graham Zusi continues his six-week tour with the United States men’s national team, Dovale has seen an increase in playing time in the midfield. The results are starting to show. He has tallied one goal and one assist in four starts.
Dovale, a 24-year-old product of the Barcelona Academy in Spain, also nearly scored a second goal against New York, which would have served as the game-winner.
“He’s very good with the ball,” Vermes said of Dovale. “It’s not easy to get the ball off him. He can give a final pass, and as you saw, he can score. ... He’s just got a very high aptitude for the game, and I think it’s because he’s smarter than most of the players he’s playing against.”
The adjustment for Julião comes as perhaps more of a surprise. Sporting KC acquired the 19-year-old defender on loan from Fluminense FC after playing against the Brazilian club during the preseason.
“When I got here, (I had) to adapt to this team because this is a very fast-paced team,” Julião said through a translator. “In Brazil, it’s more of a slower pace. But after a few weeks, I adapted pretty quickly.”
When Julião joined Sporting KC last month, it was thought he would require some time to adjust to the Sporting Fit requirements. But that’s a luxury the team can no longer afford. Julião has been thrusted into the starting lineup as an outside right defender after incumbent starter Chance Myers suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury.
“It wasn’t the best way to get a starting job,” Julião said. “I wanted to work and earn my way into the lineup. But I’m going to play and make the best out of it.”
SPORTING KANSAS CITY AT D.C. UNITED
WHEN/WHERE: 6 p.m. Saturday; at RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
TV/RADIO: KCMI (Ch. 38); WHB (810 AM)
ABOUT SPORTING KC (5-4-4): Trying to end a four-match winless streak, Sporting KC returns to the road, where it is 2-3 this season. While the lineup remains far from full, the club is starting to regain its early-season form. It has produced solid run of play during the past two matches, which both resulted in draws.
ABOUT D.C. UNITED (5-4-3): The club has earned a result in eight of its past 10 matches. Eddie Johnson was ejected in a 2-1 loss to New England last weekend, a defeat that ended a three-match unbeaten streak, but he will be available for face his former team Saturday after the red card was rescinded earlier this week.
BOTTOM LINE: Sporting KC is unbeaten in its past seven matches against D.C. United. It was 2-0-1 against D.C. last season.
PREDICTION: D.C. United 2, Sporting KC 1