Sporting Kansas City didn't just play well on Saturday in defeating the previously undefeated Montreal Impact, 2-0; the two-time defending regular season Eastern Conference champions were devastatingly dominant in beating the Impact in every area of the field to move firmly back into the playoff places after just five games into the 2013 season.
Saturday's game was an early season premier matchup for the two clubs, a litmus test of sorts for Montreal, and a chance to remind everyone that Sporting are still the team to beat in the East.
"You could see it in their eyes that they wanted no part of this game," forward CJ Sapong said after the game.
Whether it was the matchup or the occasion, Sapong hit the nail on the absolute head. Montreal's preferred style of play is to remain compact at the back and hit their opponents with a devastating counter attack, but even then, they looked out of their depth and unsure of how to cope with the siege of pressure coming at them in waves. And credit for that goes to Sporting KC.
For all intents and purposes, Saturday's performance was as good as it gets for Sporting KC. 11 out of 11 starting players put in 8/10 performances, and that's more than any coach in the world can ask of his squad. Every starting player fulfilled his duty on Saturday. That's the proverbial 'ceiling' for what Sporting KC can be.
Now that we've seen it, it's about returning as close to that ceiling as possible week in and week out.
It won't be easy, though, because the matchup of Montreal was a very good one for Sporting. But that only rang true because of the early goal scored by Claudio Bieler. Once Sporting KC took the 1-0 lead just five minutes into the game, Montreal's gameplan was scrapped and altered, for they suddenly were in a race against time to find the equalizing goal.
Once Montreal were forced out of their shell, Sporting's four-headed attacking monster of Sapong, Bieler, Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber was unleashed in a way that Sporting KC fans have dreamt of since Bieler and Feilhaber were signed in December. Suddenly Feilhaber had acres of space between defensive midfielders and centerback to thread through balls to his forwards. That only lead to two assists for the 2010 World Cup veteran (remember the quality of the player).
Feilhaber, by the way, was 39-for-46 passing (85 percent) and combined for a dozen tackles, ball recoveries and interceptions. So much for a guy that can't play deeper and contribute on the defensive end.
Zusi rolled the confidence drawn from a couple of great results for the United States national team into another masterclass performance for his club side. With Feilhaber running the show from the midfield, the game was opened up for Zusi in a way that we've never seen before. For two years now, Zusi has been tasked with dictating the tempo of the game, springing attacks from the midfield and playing the role of the midfield metronome.
Now, with Feilhaber in tow, Zusi can - and seemingly already has - expanded his game to fit the mold of a 4-3-3 winger. He'll rarely be a guy that takes defenders head on wide on the wings, but the diagonal run Zusi made to get behind the Montreal defense for the late, game-clinching goal was that of textbook goalscoring prowess. And slipping that perfectly weighted ball behind the defense was, of course, Benny Feilhaber.
The return of not only one, but two starting defenders - Chance Myers and Matt Besler - also boosted Sporting's squad on Saturday, and once again head coach Peter Vermes was able to pick his absolute best eleven players. The presence of Besler is tough to put into words and context because he's simply so good and often goes unnoticed because he's so airtight at the back. Besler backing up Aurelien Collin's daring challenges and breaks forward feels much safer than Ike Opara the week prior against New England.
Myers, though, affected the Sporting attack in a positive way just as much as Feilhaber and Zusi did. Mechack Jerome proved to be a fine enough backup defender to Myers, but few fullbacks in Major League Soccer provide the attacking support of Myers. The right-sided width from the back freed up Zusi and Sapong - whichever player happened to be on that side at the time - to tuck inside and play in much more natural, comfortable areas for them. There was little to no coincidence that Sporting's two scoreless games in 2013 happened to be the two games in 2013 that Myers did not play.
The potential of this team has finally been seen and peeked upon in reality. The options and angles are truly limitless for Sporting KC, but to reach their goals for 2013, they'll need to hit that ceiling from Saturday as many games in a row as possible.