If Sporting Kansas City’s 0-0 draw against Philadelphia on Wednesday proves anything, it’s this: It’s never too late for a team to change its stars.
Seriously. After a disastrous start to the season that featured multiple losses-that-should-have-been-draws, the fact Sporting KC somehow managed to get a result in this one — a road test just four days after its last game — means things have definitely changed for the better.
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Think about it. Sporting KC got a draw, even though a.) it failed to put a single shot on target, b.) it was missing its best centerback, and c.) Philadelphia outshot it 26-8. None of this is lost on manager Peter Vermes, whose team had several games earlier this season in which it played better than it did Wednesday and still lost. Granted, that was during a season-opening 10-game road trip, but still.
“It’s fantastic for us to be able to walk out of here this way,” Vermes said. “After having to rotate all these guys, to be able to get a draw here is a good thing. Our guys have learned to lock it down, and that’s important.”
Indeed. With the draw, Sporting KC improved to 3-6-5 and stretched its Major League Soccer unbeaten streak to six games, and seven overall if you count its U.S. Open Cup win against New England in late May.
And for his team’s latest result, Vermes can thank goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. Nielsen made a number of saves — particularly in the pressure-packed second-half, when Philadelphia kept pushing forward in hopes of making a dent in Sporting KC’s cautious, defense-oriented game plan.
“We have to play again Saturday, so we wanted to be very smart and not kill ourselves tonight,” Vermes said. “Philadelphia was at home, so they had to drive the game. We just wanted to make sure we didn’t expose any crazy opportunities.”
To that end, Vermes put numbers behind the ball and ordered his team to counter-attack whenever possible.
The Union came closest to scoring in the 63rd minute, when dangerous forward Sebastien Le Toux sent a cross toward forward Carlos Ruiz, whose header beat Nielsen but bounced off the crossbar.
“That was their best action of the game,” Vermes said, “but Jimmy did such a good job coming across the goal, Ruiz had to go to the far post. Plus, the cross was a little too high.”
Regardless, Philadelphia kept coming. But they were denied every time, thanks in large part to the play of centerback Julio Cesar, who lost his starting job earlier in the season but was all over the place on Wednesday. He took the spot of starter Aurelien Colin, who sat out the game with a yellow-card suspension.
“He was exactly what we needed him to be tonight,” Vermes said of Cesar. “He was a man out there tonight. You could see it.”
With Cesar’s impressive play, it will interesting to see what Vermes does at the position in Sporting KC’s next game, a 7:30 showdown against Vancouver at Livestrong Sporting Park on Saturday. Does he ride the hot hand with Cesar and fellow starter Matt Besler, or does he reinsert Collin, who has been fantastic since his arrival in April?
“I don’t want to think about that now,” said Vermes, who was obviously happy with his team’s recent change in fortune. “I just want to enjoy this one.”