Graham Zusi, Kristian Nemeth, Benny Feilhaber … the typical names one would hear when pundits would praise Sporting Kansas City’s roster in past years. Those three, along with Kevin Ellis and Amadou Dia, were among the ones listed when Sporting last landed three players on the MLS Team of the Week twice in May of 2015.
Fast forward almost two years and that hat-trick has happened again … with three very different names, and three players who help form strength up the middle, the all-important spine of Sporting Kansas City’s formidable side: former MLS pool goalkeeper in Tim Melia; a center back who nearly retired two years ago in Ike Opara; and the third in a string of Barcelona holding midfielder products in Ilie Sanchez.
Melia’s fingertip save of Darlington Nagbe’s dipping volley in the 79th minute of Sporting’s 1-0 win in Portland last Saturday night and wowing saves like it seem to be the norm now for the 30-year-old goalkeeper. And the stats back that up. Sporting is the top-rated defense at .33 goal against per game, yet they are 6th in goals expected – an analysis of the quality of chances on goal a team allows (see here). That means that Melia has stopped goals that should have been.
“You cannot underestimate or undervalue what Tim has done in goal. We haven’t faced a lot of shots, but the ones that we have, he’s come up very, very big,” said Sporting’s Assistant Coach Kerry Zavagnin. “And sometimes that is more difficult than dealing with consistent shots over 90 minutes, so he’s been on as he’s needed to be.”
And as one who shuffled around from team-to-team early in his career and then became part of the MLS pool of goalkeepers that are called on usually only in emergency situations, Melia’s mental approach to his game has had to be arguably more sharpened than his physical tools. Team captain and center back Matt Besler believes Melia’s reputation will only grow.
“I’ve always believed that he is one of the best goalkeepers in the league. I have a feeling a lot of other people will start to realize that if he continues to keep playing at the same level he is,” said Besler, before giving a tip to his comrade’s success. “Tim is a guy that has a strong presence on and off the field. He’s got that New Yorker in him. His personality fits his style of play on the field.”
Opara, Besler’s partner in the progression of Sporting’s spine up the field, struggled through injuries and inconsistent time on the pitch for three years in San Jose before Sporting traded for the 28-year-old before the 2013 season. The former United States U-20 and U-23 player has struggled with injuries in Kansas City as well and contemplated retirement, but he has persevered through determination and had developed solid habits to maintain his fitness to become that player that all fans, players, and staff want to see perform because of his pure ability.
“… He is one of the more dominant players in this league from a defensive perspective. He’s dominant in the air. He can deal with two types of forwards – the small, quick players, but also the big [Timbers’ forward Fanendo] Adi-type players we saw this weekend,” stated Zavagnin.
Besler, however, knows it more than Opara’s physical gifts that make him dominant.
“This run of games have allowed us to get a better feel for each other, certain plays that we like to make,” said Besler, highlighting Opara’s cerebral play. “There are certain plays that I let Ike do his thing, and I can cover him. And there are certain balls that I like to step into and try and win, and Ike will cover me.”
Though Besler did reflect on Opara’s wow-factor as well. “If you are an attacker, you are probably thinking, ‘How am I going to beat this guy? There are not a whole lot of ways that you can beat him right now.”
In Sporting’s system, where Besler and Opara are often a back two, the holding midfield position must be manned by a player who has strong physical attributes – a good engine for one – but a very smart and skilled player. And why not milk a Barcelona pipeline that has been nurtured over time? Enter Oriol Rosell (2012-14), Jordi Quintilla (2015-16), and now Ilie Sanchez, who signed to a two-year contract with a club option for a third year before the season began.
The 26-year-old Spaniard, who goes by Ilie, has arguably been the metaphorical rope that has pulled Sporting Kansas City into a tighter knit unit more able to control possession and create chances.
“He does a lot of good things to make players around him better. He’s an intelligent player. Within the model of play we are trying to implement here, he’s able to translate that very, very quickly,” said Zavagnin. “He comes from a very good soccer education, so some of the things that we ask of him are second nature.
Melia, Opara, and Ilie – three members of Sporting’s spine, arriving from three distinct backgrounds, developing their own attributes.
The expanding of Sporting Kansas City’s talent pool from various waters highlights Technical Director and Head Coach Peter Vermes and Company’s ability to not only recognize players with the right mentality and talent, but to develop them over time. And the fact that these three players are beyond the Beslers, Zusis, Feilhabers, and Dom Dwyers and are critical parts of the spine of the team, the part that must be solid for authentic and extended success, shows that Sporting is built for sustainable success.