The Full 90

Pieces come together on defense for Sporting KC

Chemistry can be a funny thing.

Sporting Kansas City drafted Matt Besler eighth overall in 2009, a hometown kid joining his hometown team, but few predicted he’d become an MLS All-Star two years later.

A year earlier, Chance Myers entered the MLS as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, but he needed a few years to find his place as a professional player.

Likewise, Aurelien Collin struggled to find his place after a promising youth career in Europe. But Collin, a little-known French defender, traveled across the pond and established himself as an All-Star in the middle of America.

Meanwhile, Seth Sinovic, who grew up in Kansas City and played at Rockhurst High School, was cut by the New England Revolution and also failed to stick with Real Salt Lake before reluctantly coming back home.

Cobbling together those four players hardly seems like the recipe for the best defense in the MLS, but that’s exactly what the quartet has become with Myers at right back, Collin and Besler paired at center back and Sinovic manning left back.

With those four in the starting lineup, Sporting KC is 22-2-5 all-time across all competitions, including a 10-1-1 mark this season, with only four goals allowed in those 12 games.

“It’s crazy looking at those numbers and it’s hard to explain,” Sinovic said. “But the more we play together, the more comfortable we are together as a back line and with (goalkeeper) Jimmy (Nielsen).”

For the first time since July 14, that foursome was reunited in yet another shutout effort last Saturday at Toronto FC.

But Sporting KC, 14-7-4, and its vaunted defense face perhaps the season’s toughest test yet Sunday with the New York Red Bulls, 13-7-5, arriving for an 8 p.m. kickoff.

The game, which pits the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, will be televised on ESPN2.

Even without forward Thierry Henry, whose wife gave birth to a son Friday, the Red Bulls promise to be a dangerous team. The Red Bulls, who lead the East in scoring, have MLS’ second-leading scorer in Kenny Cooper along with Sebastien Le Toux and Tim Cahill.

“You have to be very alert during the game and can’t give those guys time and space or they’re going to crush you,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We have to make sure we’re attentive to those moments that can really hurt us throughout the course of the game.”

Sporting KC has given up only 22 goals in 25 games, a league-best 0.88 goals-against average, but Vermes and others are quick to point out it’s not just the back four and Nielsen who deserve credit for that.

“Our first line of defense is our forwards, and they have to try to make the game predictable for the rest of the guys,” Vermes said. “If they are doing that and doing it well, we usually have a good defensive game.”

Still, the fact remains that Sporting KC has given up 19 goals in the 13 games with one or more of its starting defenders absent.

That contrast is difficult to ignore.

“A lot of it’s confidence, because we’re comfortable with each other and have played together a lot of games,” Besler said. “We’re got a lot of wins together and we trust each other. We know how each other plays.”

Besler knows how Collin will react in almost any situation and covers appropriately on instinct.

But he also knows Sinovic’s tendencies in a given situation and vice versa. The same goes for Myers and Collin.

“Each of us has our own style, but we’ve found a way to play together,” Besler said. “We all play to our own strengths. We know Chance likes to get up and down with his speed, so we play to that. We know Seth is really good making decisions on the ball, so we give him the ball a lot. Collin’s good in the air, so we play to each other’s strengths.”