Besler, 31, has appeared in more matches for Sporting than other player in club history, and the 32-year-old Zusi is not too far behind. The latter’s success since being moved to right back under Peter Vermes has been profound.
Coach Peter Vermes isn’t worried about the ages of the quartet. Sanchez is the youngest of the group at 27, but Espinoza is 31 like Besler. From KansasCity.com:
“We think all of them are in their prime,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We just feel they have a lot of years left to give.”
Over the last few years, MLS has been trending in this direction — as the financial investment in players has increased year by year, most of the league’s teams have chosen to spend that additional cash on quality attacking talent, which means the amount of money spent on defenders has either remained unchanged or gone backwards in some cases. Why? Well, in short, scoring sells, and MLS needs to sell itself, both on TV and at the box office.
It’s undoubtedly made the league abundantly more entertaining year over year, even if you could construct a really strong argument that the overall quality of soccer remains largely unchanged (I would help you build this case). The likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Ignacio Piatti, Diego Valeri, Mauro Diaz, Robbie Keane, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Magee, Cristian Maidana Pedro Morales have entered the league and each taken it by storm within their first six months in North America.
Sunday’s 2016 season-opening onslaught was a culmination of that trend, as 36 goals were poured in across 10 games — in part due to the immense quality the league now possesses in the final third, but also due in part to the severe lack of quality (see: Chicago 3-4 NYCFC) many of the league’s teams now possess in defense. From an entertainment perspective, it’s brilliant, and as a full-time MLS viewer, that’s just fine by me.
Mike Magee’s final partial season in LA saw him score six goals in the Galaxy’s first 10 games of 2013 before being traded to the Chicago Fire in late May as part of the deal that landed Robbie Rogers in his hometown upon returning to action as the first openly gay athlete in top-tier American team sports. Magee went on to score 15 goals in 22 games for his hometown Fire and was named the 2013 MLS MVP in a landslide voting process.
Long-term injuries reduced Magee to just 29 games and seven goals in his final two seasons with the Fire, thus his still-fresh pay raise ($400,000 against the salary cap) became too heavy a burden to bear and he was allowed to walk away as a free agent this winter. So it only made sense that Magee headed back to LA, where he won back-to-back MLS Cups (2011, 2012) and back-to-back Supporters’ Shields (2010, 2011). Sure, he’d be coming off the bench and without a true positional home again, but he’d have an important part to play at some point in 2016, given Robbie Keane’s advanced age and participation in the European Championship, and potential U.S. and Mexican national team call-ups for Gyasi Zardes and Giovani dos Santos this summer.
No one thought he’d be the star and savior for the Galaxy on opening night, dragging them back from a thoroughly despondent first-half performance against D.C. United and engineering a four-goal second-half rampage, but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. Dos Santos was forced off through injury at halftime, at which point Magee made in 45 minutes the kind of impact GdS has been unable to make in his first six months with the Galaxy — not only was he a constant threat in the final third (two goals, one assist in 45 minutes) because of the dangerous areas he occupied and his quick circulation of the ball, but his work rate defensively gave the Galaxy midfield and defense the kind of stability they lacked down the stretch in 2015 and in the first half against D.C.
It’s still too early to definitively say, “Magee should be starting over GdS,” but I will be keeping a watchful eye on the two of them and mentally pitting them against one another in their every appearance for the next month.
When Roger Espinoza went down for the remainder of the 2015 season with a broken foot in August, it was the beginning of the end of Sporting Kansas City’s season. Sure, they would go on to win the U.S. Open two months later, but they were never close to the same team without the Honduran patrolling the midfield and wreaking havoc on some of the league’s top attacking talent (see: a handful of names from the above list). With Espinoza in the lineup: 18 goals conceded in 17 games (1.06 per game) last year; without Espinoza in the lineup: 26 goals conceded in 17 games (1.53 per game). They also scored fewer without him (22) than they did with him (25).
Those are the numbers. This is an observation based on the eye test: the lives of every one else in the Sporting KC lineup is easier with Espinoza on the field. Through an immense work rate, through intelligent and controlled pressing that’s criminally underrated, through a directness on the ball that puts opponents on their back foot… the Sporting machine hums along with Espinoza roaming box to box.
Espinoza’s numbers remain unspectacular throughout his career (3 goals, 15 assists in nearly 10,000 minutes). Even some of the more finite numbers (2 tackles, 1 interception, 0 clearances) don’t tell the story of how he’s the irreplaceable figure in one of MLS’s top midfield trios (Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber and Soni Mustivar), but Espinoza’s impact was on display in Sunday’s 1-0 away win over the Seattle Sounders, evident as ever through the marked improvement of everyone around him in comparison to those final three months of 2015.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
Goalkeeper: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)
Defenders: Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Daniel Steres (LA Galaxy)
Midfielders: Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas), Mike Magee (LA Galaxy)
Forwards: Joao Plata (Real Salt Lake), Cyle Larin (Orlando City SC)
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Ignacio Piatti was the only MLS player to receive a match rating of 10.0 on soccer stats website WhoScored.com, which is great, because this is one of the increasingly rare instances where the stats match up perfectly with the eye test.
In short, Piatti was unplayable against on Sunday, and it was clear for all to see. His opening goal — the one where he skated past four defenders and curled his eventual striker inside the far post — was pure class. On his day, when healthy, when fully engaged mentally — yes, that’s a lot of qualifiers — Piatti’s one of the top-five most terrifying players in MLS. Sunday was his day, he was fit and he was up for it. In part because of Piatti, Montreal are MLS Cup contenders with or without Didier Drogba.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Toronto FC scored twice, and Sebastian Giovinco scored one of them and set up the other. 2016, same as 2015. Here’s the kicker: TFC were quite good defensively against the Red Bulls, which is why I’m happy to have picked them to finish top of the Eastern Conference this year.
Portland Timbers 2-1 Columbus Crew SC — FULL RECAP
MLS Cup 2015 rematch, MLS Cup 2015 deja vu — just like December’s final, Sunday’s season opener finished 2-1 to the Timbers. Dare I say, Portland might actually be (way?) better in 2016 than they were last year. That Diego Chara-Darlington Nagbe-Diego Valeri midfield trio is, in theory, perfect.
The LA Galaxy are going to run away with the Supporters’ Shield in 2016. The LA Galaxy are going to totally fall apart and miss the playoffs in 2016. Here’s the thing: I don’t know which of those two statements to hang my hat on just yet. One thing’s indisputable tonight: they were a million times better after Mike Magee replace Giovani dos Santos, with or without Magee’s two goals.
Vancouver Whitecaps 2-3 Montreal Impact — FULL RECAP
With or without Didier Drogba (they were without him on Sunday), the Impact are really good. The midfield is oh so solid, both defensively and going forward; Ignacio Piatti (two goals, one assist) is, when healthy, one of the best in the league; the defense, anchored by Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera, is imposing and terrifying. Drogba makes them MLS Cup contenders (favorites?), though they might get there without him anyway.
Seattle Sounders 0-1 Sporting Kansas City — FULL RECAP
Aided in part by a first-half red card, a shorthanded Sporting KC side (no Benny Feilhaber, Ike Opara, Brad Davis or Seth Sinovic) stole a pair of additional points from the Sounders who, it must be said, looked extremely flat in their first league game of the post-Obafemi Martins era. Also, it’s official: Roger Espinoza makes a world of difference in the SKC midfield. Hugely influential and irreplaceable player.
Typically, dueling red cards is the storyline of any game. Indeed, it was headed that direction, until Orlando City scored in the 94th minute and again in the 95th to grab a point at home against RSL. Lost in all the late-game drama: Joao Plata is tied for top spot in the 2016 Golden Boot race (two goals).
Houston Dynamo 3-3 New England Revolution — FULL RECAP
The Dynamo aren’t half-bad, you know — offensively, at least. Will Bruin, Giles Barnes, Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger, with Erick “Cubo” Torres off the bench… that’s totally fine. Unfortunately for them, they’re still kind of a mess defensively (it cost them two points on Sunday), in part because they get very little help from the midfield.
Mauro Diaz’s 2016 so far: one game played, two assists. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Speaking of things staying the same, Fabian Castillo got himself on the scoresheet before being stretchered off the field. Thankfully, the injury doesn’t appear to be serious.
San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 Colorado Rapids — FULL RECAP
The game in 100 words (or less): Not to sound any alarm bells or anything too quickly, but we need to have a talk about Sporting Kansas City. For a little over a month now, they’ve not exactly been great, and they’ve certainly not been dominant at any point of that 10-game stretch, which includes Saturday night’s 2-1 defeat to the Colorado Rapids. Sure, they’ve racked up a decent enough record over that timeframe (5W-1D-3L in all competitions), but a team can only overcome early deficits and win in spectacular fashion so often. It’s not a sustainable strategy over the course of a 34-game season. Roger Espinoza is a huge miss in the midfield, but the central unit is far from the only bunch worthy of blame. Set-piece defending has been borderline atrocious for some time now, and the full backs have been constant turnstiles as opposing wingers race bace unabated again and again. Peter Vermes navigated an injury crisis for a few months, but it’s safe to say it’s catching up to Sporting KC now. With Saturday’s loss, they could sit as low as fifth at the end of the weekend (40 points).
47′ — Dwyer hammers home after Nemeth weaves his way in — Krisztian Nemeth went on a dizzying, weaving run through the Rapids midfield, split three defenders and poked the ball into the path of Dom Dwyer, whose left-footed blast found the back of the net just inside Clint Irwin’s near post.
53′ — Figueroa benefits from a deflection, ties it back up — Someone forgot to pay attention to Maynor Figueroa, a two-time World Cup veteran, making the late, late, late-arriving run at the back post. When the ball arrived, Figueroa had a go, took the deflection off Graham Zusi in stride and used it to sneak under the crossbar at the far post.
76′ — Doyle rises up, heads home from close range — Step 1 to being a good defensive team: Mark the tall men inside the penalty area when a cross comes into the box. Sporting forgot to do this as Vicente Sanchez hit a floating ball to Kevin Doyle at the back post. Doyle, all 6-foot-nothing of him, headed the ball home with ease.
The Union love a good Open Cup run, don’t they? All might not be well for Jim Curtin’s side in MLS play but they were runners up last year to the Seattle Sounders (courtesy of a crushing extratime defeat at their own stadium) and host Chicago at PPL Park on Wednesday. Their route to this semifinal has been a complicated one, as they’ve rallied to win twice when down to 10-men and have also come through two penalty shootouts unscathed. Captain Maurice Edu is likely to return for the Union as they aim to make the final for the second-straight year.
As for Chicago, their MLS form leaves a lot to be desired too as the two bottom teams in the Eastern Conference square off. What’s all that about? Anyway, the winner of this match knows that they will host the U.S. Open Cup final, and Chicago’s boss Frank Yallop is adamant his side can rise to the occasion and bring the Open Cup back to Chicago for the fifth-time in club history to equal the competition’s record number of titles.
These two familiar foes will lock horns at a packed out Sporting Park on Wednesday with plenty stored in the memory bank. Remember the 2013 MLS Cup final which went to an epic 10-round penalty shootout in KC where Sporting prevailed? This could be very feisty as RSL have already beaten SKC twice this season and drew on the other occasion against Peter Vermes’ team.
RSL rested several starters at the weekend and were demolished 4-0 by the Vancouver Whitecaps, but head coach Jess Cassar has defended that decision. For Sporting KC, they will definitely be without Roger Espinoza and Amobi Okugo and Graham Zusi could join them on the sidelines. A lively home crowd and a rested Dom Dwyer could give SKC the advantage they need to reach the final.