Sporting Kansas City defender Michael Harrington was called by many, myself leading the cavalry, the most consistent player for the 2010 Kansas City Wizards. His play at the rightback position in his fourth year in Major League Soccer was an ever-calming presence in a side that struggled for much of the year, particularly in the defensive half.
Coming into the 2011 season, it was widely expected that Harrington, the fifth year rightback from the University of North Carolina, would simply pick right back up where he left off in 2010 and hit the ground running for a second straight season. A nagging groin injury sustained during the preseason threw off those hopes from the very get-go, and Harrington missed the first two games of the season due to the injury, before making his season debut at Vancouver Whitecaps on April 2.
From that very first appearance of the season, Harrington seemed to struggle a bit, as did the rest of the Sporting KC defense. Ultimately, the team ended up dropping two points in that game and drawing 3-3 after holding a 3-1 lead a couple minutes into stoppage time. It could easily be said that physical fitness after an injury that didn't allow for Harrington to do any conditioning work was to blame on that night. Fair point, until his performances didn't look to improve much as his full match fitness returned.
Things seem to have finally reached a head with Sporting head coach Peter Vermes after the team's home opener following a 10-game road trip to start the season, and Harrington hasn't started a game since. Three games without a start is the longest such stretch of Harrington's career since June of 2009, his third year in the league.
Perhaps the entire media are off and it's the insurgent play of fourth year utility-man Chance Myers that has unseated Harrington, rather than Harrington's less than stellar performances. For much of his own career, Myers, the first overall pick in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, has been an enigma himself. Vermes and fans alike recognize that Myers can play anywhere on the field, wide right. Whether his best suited place is right wing, right mid or rightback still remains the question.
One thing has become apparent the last two months, though, and that is that Myers has given Vermes no choice but to find someway to get him onto the field. His promising run of form in the reserve league and a US Open Cup qualifier, all in the span of eight days, saw the UCLA graduate score four goals in two goals. It was then that Myers found himself starting for the first team at the right winger spot in the very next game against Colorado Rapids. From there, he has played the last five games as the starting right back, while Harrington started two games in the same span at leftback and was selected on the bench the other three.
The contrast in each player's game is pretty apparent, even to the casual on-looker. Harrington is a more established, physical defender while Myers offers more athleticism and pace going forward and providing width in the attack. Though, Myers did bulk up a considerable amount in the offseason and looks to be carrying himself 10-15 pounds stronger in 2011.
If you compare the two players' games and performances on a deeper, more technical level, a true pattern begins to emerge. Harrington's strength of crossing the ball into the opponent's box for teammates in 2010 has now become his Achilles' heel, and in turn, a huge strength of Myers'. In a 4-3-3 system, which Sporting often employ, quality service into the box is a necessity of fullbacks on either side of the field. When that went away from Harrington, so went a huge part of why he was so successfully in 2010. Myers is now also using his speed advantage to beat players down the wing and put himself into possessions in which he can use that crossing ability. And, with a more stabilized central defense of Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler, a bit more room for error on the wings is given.
Not bad for a player that I went as far as to say he was only "nearly on the team" three weeks before the season kicked off.
With an extremely congested schedule of games coming up just over the horizon in the months of July and August, it seems completely unfeasible that either player would make the majority of the starts at rightback, given that most humans aren't built to play 90 minutes of soccer in 90 degree-plus heat every three days. Also, with the recent departure of winger Ryan Smith for the remainder of the 2011 season, a few minutes could open up in the attack for Myers, as well.
As a complete aside, it shouldn't be ignored that it was as soon as Harrington cut his long, blonde locks, a la a certain once dangerous Spanish forward - one, Fernando Torres, now of Chelsea - that his performance dropped unexpectedly. The same happened for Torres (each seen at right) when he cut his trademark blonde silks and opted for life as a brunette prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Lesson: do no underestimate the power of a footballer with beautiful hair.
The ultimate answer to the question "When does Michael Harrington return to the Sporting KC starting XI?" does look to be one without a clear cut answer. As long as Myers continues on his recent run of stellar play, Harrington may well be relegated to the bench for a while, or forced to find another spot on the field in which he can help out.