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“Easy”: An “In the Box” look at SKC’s Nicholas Isimat-Mirin

In the little moments and the large, Isi shines.

SOCCER: JUL 25 MLS - Sporting Kansas City at Seattle Sounders FC Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sporting Kansas City right center back Nicholas Isimat-Mirin is tracking towards the touch line 10 yards into his own half for a flighted ball sent from Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland in the 61st minute Sunday night. Hot on his trail is MLS’s leading scorer Raul Ruidiaz, a huge reason the Sounders sit atop MLS’s Western Conference. Isimat-Mirin is the last man back. Off the turf bounce, Isimat-Mirin calmly plays a first-time ball for right back Graham Zusi.

No errant touch. No ball played out for a quick Seattle throw-in to a nearby, crafty, Freddy Montero. No chance of Seattle building on the momentum gained from scoring just 10 minutes earlier to pull within one in this six-point swing match between 1st and 2nd place teams.

Instead, the cool ball begins a 16-pass sequence that allows Kansas City to regain some rhythm and to rest while they make the ball do the work. Make Seattle chase for a while. Put the Sounders’ faithful back in their seats.

Easy. That is Sporting’s Isimat-Mirin.

Back in the starting lineup now for two matches after being injured in Kansas City’s second match of the season, the 29-year-old Mirin has made the transition smooth for Sporting. The transition to MLS from his years playing in high-level leagues in France, the Netherlands, and Turkey? Yes. But, more pressing for Sporting, the transition to no Gianluca Busio-Ilie-Andreu Fontas golden passing triangle between the holding midfielder and the two center backs in Sporting’s 4-3-3.

97.3; 91.8: Those are “Easy’s” pass completion percentages in the two matches Isimat-Mirin has started since Busio has been with the United States Men’s National Team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The first was the highest percentage of all starters who went more than 45 minutes versus San Jose Earthquakes at home last Wednesday, by far. The second was the second highest behind Busio’s current replacement, Remi Walter, in the Seattle tilt.

However, dribbling in the open field is not his forte. The one time Isi (as he prefers to be called) dribbled freely in Seattle, it was erratic, loose. His feet are good, though. In the 90th minute, Isi baits in Ruidiaz wide on the right deep in Sporting’s end. Whoop… Cruyff turn back to the left and a simple pass back to always present goalkeeper Tim Melia for a touch into Walter, and Sporting breaks out of the back. Just don’t expect Isi to lead a counterattack with a solo dribble.

But that’s okay. On the ball, it is passing he is called on to do. Thirty-fifth minute in tight space: Isi calmly plays a one-touch pass to Walter to relieve the Sounders’ pressure. Rinse. Repeat.

Kansas City Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes puts high value on players who get the ball off their feet quickly, as he should. Isi is that personified. Watch how Isi turns his body, touches smoothly, and plays a quick, if not one-touch, pass to the open man. Consistent. Silky. Natural.

Yet, Isi is not without quirks. The Frenchman plays some gutsy balls with opponents near, sometimes putting the ball in questionable spots. Confidence can hurt; thus far, that confidence is just an outcome of skill and calmness, the one-touch passing a result of strong positioning.

Positioning, of course, is key to any defending, especially that of a center back. Isi’s positioning is proactive. In one sequence, he may step up to the nearest forward in anticipation as the opponent’s carry forward, drop deeper as the ball goes wide, then cover a teammate who pressures the ball. Generally, Isi seems to prefer to keep play in front of him. That propensity may mean less dependency on the offside trap by the Sporting backline, as has been the recent trend. Furthermore, the stats backup Isi’s strong positioning: Six interceptions and 11 clearances in the last two games lead all of Sporting’s squad.

Then there are decisions and movements that don’t find their way into stats:

Isi chooses to run with Ruidiaz as Montero receives the ball. If he doesn’t, Ruidiaz is 1v1 with left back Luis Martins (who does well too), and Montero likely plays Ruidiaz. Instead – watch Montero’s head – Montero decides to try and split Sporting’s mass of defenders to his left. See Isi’s 28th minute tracking of Kelyn Rowe and the rejecting of his subsequent cross for more evidence.

Perhaps the most critical part of Isi’s performance at Seattle was his handling of Montero. The 6’2”, 181lbs Isimat-Mirin is not the quickest player on the field. In the 2nd minute, a covering Fontas bails out Isi who Montero easily beats with a quick give-and-go. It was a note-to-self moment for Isi.

Three minutes later, Isi steps in front to deny Montero the ball. In the 16th, Isi physically dominates the forward to strip the ball. Throughout the rest of the 90+ minutes, Isi never lost a battle with the slippery, 5’9” Colombian again, by stepping up when needed, blocking his cross, and boldly winning a header as Montero crashes into him in later moments.

Handle small, crafty forwards? Check.

The multi-talented Isimat-Mirin has shown well for Sporting in five appearances and four starts. And, clearly, he has bought into the team and the tactics. Isi may not be a blatantly dominate player who often stands out. Instead, Isi’s mojo is: Skilled, calm, smart team player who is where he needs to be on and off the ball to make the routine or the big play simple.

Just call Isimat-Mirin, Isi, “Easy.”