A selective list of many of the players Sporting Kansas City let go via different avenues in the 2016-2017 offseason tells a story. Jettisoned were veterans Brad Davis, Justin Mapp, Paulo Nagamura, Lawrence Olum and Jacob Peterson. Average age = 32. Age was an apparent factor. Select transactions in the offseason were further revealing – re-signed 25 year-old Saad Abdul-Salaam and added Gerso Fernandes and Latif Blessing (26 and 20 years old respectively), as well a host of other young or of-prime-age players.
But there is another factor at play here. Sporting KC’s architect, Technical Director and Head Coach Peter Vermes knows it.
“You are always trying to find players, recruit players, sign players to your roster that are dynamic and can bring certain aspects to the game,” said Vermes, referring to Gerso and Blessing. “… We have been searching for guys like that for quite some time.”
One of those “certain aspects” is speed. Ford’s Mustang. Chevy’s Corvette. GM’s GTO. The Lamborghini. The Porsche. It’s a fact - speed kills. And it excites and thrills. And crowds love thrills. And the Sporting Kansas City crowds of 2017 have been on the edge of their seat and up off them more often this season with ooohs and ahhhs inspired most recently by Gerso and Blessing and Sporting’s much more dynamic play and higher horse power.
“It’s easy that those guys become fan favorites really quickly because of the things they bring when they are inside the white lines,” stated Vermes.
Whether playing as a center forward or a winger, Blessing has been inspiring anticipation and excitement in fans and foes for many games now. His two-goal debut at Orlando City in May was certainly an auspicious beginning, and his five goals in all competitions have been critical for his sometimes defense-dependent side. But it has been his speed on the ball, his quick feet, and his off the ball runs that have made Sporting more dangerous and Blessing more attended to by opposing defenses.
The origin? The beach, of course …
“When I was in Ghana I would train on the beach,” said the Accra, Ghana (on the SE Ghanaian coast), native. “That training helped me get good speed. I trained a lot.”
That training created instincts. Speed is on Blessing’s brain.
“Futbol is my talent. I have to do anything possible to get my mind on my speed,” Blessing revealed. “Move forward. Get something for my teammates. I feel happy to run with the ball, to have pace to go forward. [When I do], the defenders have no rest.”
It is the last statement that is key. Yes, speed excites and thrills. That’s why it kills. And it gets results. Defenders’ minds swirl at the dangers of his speed as they take a step back; then they are baffled, dumbfounded by Blessing’s quickness on, and skill with, the ball. As defenders lose focus, the crowd’s focus sharpens.
At home against Atlanta United FC August 6, Blessing stole the ball just outside the Atlanta box in the 57th minute, pushed left, quickly long-touched right (flat-footing his befuddled defender) and drew a penalty that led to the lead for Sporting.
A week previous, Blessing spearheaded a 3-2 defeat of the then red-hot Chicago Fire as they visited Children’s Mercy Park. In the 46th minute, his near-post run and header from a cross was deftly saved by the keeper and allowed teammate Benny Feilhaber the room to bicycle in the goal that reclaimed the lead just before the half. In the 51st minute, it was again his near-post run that enabled Blessing himself to deflect in the eventual game-winning goal.
At age 20, Blessing has shown the instincts and speed of thought on and off the ball that it takes to be a consistent threat to opposing defenses. Indeed, his past reveals as much.
Before signing with Sporting, Blessing was named the 2016 Ghana Premier League player of the year after leading the top division with 17 goals for Liberty Professionals in his first season on the club’s top team. He was also a finalist for the 2016 Ghanaian FA Cup most valuable player award, helping his side reach the semifinals of the knockout competition.
But there are gaps in Blessing’s play, as there is bound to be for any 20 year-old. Vermes and Sporting’s mission is to get the most out of their Blessing by adding form to the instincts.
“Players like him that are more instinctive, are tough to get them to fit into a system of play,” said Vermes, before again praising his young attacker. “He has actually fit in much quicker than I thought he would. His teammates like him, he works extremely hard in the game, and every day he is listening and trying to get better and better within our style of play. And that’s all you can ask for.”
As Blessing continues to mesh into Sporting’s style of play, it is hoped his decision making in managing the game improves as well. Having the instinct to run with ball can sometimes sputter the engine of any team. Case in point: Blessing in the 89th minute of the Atlanta match. He gains possession to the right of his own box while his team is holding a one-goal lead. His instincts lead him to take a touch and to begin to dribble. The ball is lost and the 20 year-old fouls the Atlanta player setting up a dangerous free kick.
“He’s getting better and better with [game management],” Vermes stated. “Sometimes you have to experience it, it’s not just somebody telling you about it.”
It is true that all are benefitting from the experiences that Latif Blessing is having in Sporting Kansas City blue. The fans have rightly made him a favorite, as have his coach and teammates. Blessing’s on-field experiences are improving his game. And Blessing himself? – “I feel happy to be here. Everybody is fine to me - the fans, everybody. I’m so happy.”
Stay tuned as the education of Latif Blessing continues. There are surely many more edge of the seat moments to come.