Growing up in Palm Harbor, Florida, where water abounds in and around, Sporting Kansas City left back Ben Sweat was “on the water every weekend” that he wasn’t playing baseball or soccer. Fishing was a go to, as were water sports like water skiing and wake skimming - the type of hobbies that made one ride the edge, the water’s edge, one that could be a springboard for stupendous tricks and for a moment’s danger.
That adventurer is on the cusp of his tenth year as a professional soccer player. At age 31, Sweat is still on the edge, and not yet a bit tamed.
Sweat’s desire to attack water or wakes or opposing defenses has always been ravenous.
“I always played in the midfield or as a forward [growing up], said Sweat from Kansas City’s preseason camp in Arizona during our Tuesday phone interview. “Even in high school I played forward, one of the leading goal scorers in Florida… I loved to dribble; I loved to score.”
Unless citing Roberto Carlos or Paolo Maldini, left back mostly fails to fill one with images of attacking displays, yet Sweat contributed a better than respectable one goal and six assists from his adopted position in 26 appearances with New York City FC in 2017 during his most productive professional season.
What has happened since would have banished many. Though Sweat signed a multi-year extension with NYCFC in 2018 and remained productive – even gaining his two caps for the U.S. National Team that fall – Sweat’s playing time fell by nearly half in 2019. A season at Inter Miami followed after they made Sweat their top expansion draft pick. After a good season, the homecoming of sorts was muted when he was traded to Austin FC for their expansion season. There, playing in Austin’s second match of the 2021 season, Sweat tore his ACL. They promptly declined his contract option at the end of the season.
When Sporting signed Sweat as a free agent that December, it was a definite blessing. But the most challenging part of ACL recovery had begun.
“No one will ever tell you about how tough it is on the mental side, let alone the physical side of trying to break that barrier,” Sweat stated. “I had a good talk with the [Sporting KC] coaches and [Manager] Peter [Vermes]. They wanted to take the time with me in the first few months of the season and get a few games here, a few games there.
“The breaks are difficult because I’d missed a season, so I wanted to be back; I wanted to play every game. But I understood [companion left back] Logan [Ndenbe] was well capable of playing and did well early in the year. It allowed me to break that barrier down and get back in the swing of things and not worry about challenges, not worry about my knee. It truly put that to rest, put it behind me.”
After the ACL injury, after (as some might see it) being handed down from team to team, some might label Sweat as a journeyman in MLS, the type of player who has some strong qualities and thus is in demand, yet does not raise a side’s ceiling. However, that perception loses traction when one considers that Sweat made 18 Key passes (KP - those that lead to a shot) in 2017 and 27 the next season with NCYFC, figures that would have been 7th and tied for 4th respectively for Sporting KC in 2022, all from left back. Further credit is gained for Sweat when one realizes that he started nine of the last 10 matches (doubling his nine starts in the previous 24 games) in 2022 for Sporting, recording two of his three assists on the season as Sporting won six and drew one with only two losses. He finished with 13 KP, right in line with right back Graham Zusi, who played more minutes. For those reasons, Sweat was an initial nominee for MLS Comeback Player of the Year.
“[Sporting] did a good job of managing me and building me up through the year, and finally, I got a bunch of games in a row and once that happens you are able to get into a good rhythm, a good routine, and enjoy the game again,” said Sweat.
One gets the sense Sweat was just warming up.
“[The way we finished 2022] was good. But when a team does well, collectively, it helps everyone individually perform. When guys are taking care of their job and their role, it helps and benefits the team,” Sweat observed. “When I have someone in there like [striker] Willy [Agada], I think I could have had another three, four, five assists [in more matches]. It definitely helps and makes my job easier.
“I want a minimum of five assists this year. I’d like to get a few goals and contribute as much as I can offensively.”
Year two with Ben Sweat could see more of this:
And that’s just fine with Sporting KC teammates, staff, and fans: “Can we acknowledge how perfectly weighted the ball from Ben Sweat was on this goal?” stated Twitter commentator @mkmullin13.
By the way, 6’1”, 176 lbs. Sweat finished 2022 in the 71st percentile of MLS fullbacks in aerials won, 77th in pass completion rate, and 88th in assists according to fbref.com.
But Sweat is a left back, served with protecting a flank, and as the attacking stream narrows, a box. Although compelled by scoring goals by the bunches, Sweat, a self-reflective veteran who desires triumphs and trophies, is aware of what it will take to leap forward as a player.
“Aspects defensively… Sometimes I get carried away with it – I want to attack before I defend,” he relayed. “You defend first; then the attack comes. So, improving the defensive side, whether it’s making sure of body shape, positioning, one-on-ones, duels, little things like that. Just making sure I’m being more thoughtful of that before I cheat and get forward.”
And tightening the defensive belt team-wide is on Sweat’s mind as well.
“We have to realize in this league it’s difficult. We are not going to attack and win every game… We need to value [shutouts], and make it a priority to defend better,” he said.
A phrase that Sweat uttered during our conversation has broad, yet authentic application when it comes to accomplishing: “Until you pull the trigger, you’re not ever going to do it.”
If that quote was in reference to soccer, the segue to the next idea would be smooth. But here there are strings attached, four to be exact.
“During my injury, I bought a ukulele. I always wanted to play an instrument,” intimated Sweat. “I taught myself how to play. That is something I’ve been super happy about. I had soccer, if I wasn’t playing soccer, I was fishing. So, I picked up that, and I love it.”
With a laugh, I shared that I had recently purchased an electric guitar and was on that challenging road. It was always something I wanted to do as well.
“Why not?” Sweat asked. “Everybody always wants to do all this; they just don’t pull the trigger. Until you pull the trigger, you’re not ever going to do it.”
And he is right. And that is the key to accomplishment – One will not achieve anything in any area until they decide to make it happen.
“My wife was killing me because I was playing the same song over and over. It was well worth it. Now I can play a bunch of songs and have fun on it,” Sweat said, finishing the story.
One gets a sense of a “There is so much more I can do” drive when talking to Sweat. That he is ready to continue to give his all and go for it… That he feels he hasn’t fulfilled his destiny yet, and he is determined to orchestrate – in concert with his teammates – his own.
Untamed, on the loose, on the edge – that is Ben Sweat in 2023.
But closing without shedding light on the edge that this “Come in every day, put in the work, how you train is how you play” player sees in Sporting would be, well, like playing any song on the ukulele without smiling: just wrong.
“With how we finished the season, that’s the reason I came to this club. We had one of the best records in the league, were clearly one of the best teams in the league, and we finished the year off on a really high note. And we bring back a majority of the same guys back for year two. We have a lot to prove and some good momentum coming into the 2023 season.”
I asked, “Can you feel that ‘lots to prove’ vibe in camp?”
“Absolutely. There is definitely an edge to things because we know we can’t have a slow start like last year. The guys are on the same page, and [the familiarity] is there from the first day. We’re going to come out of the gates swinging.”
Sweat’s Quick Hits
How has preseason been for you so far?
“It’s been good. We had a tough offseason; we did a lot of running. But we came in super fit. You come in super fit, you just have to worry about the on-field aspect, the technical side of it. That’s huge. I’ve had a couple of good games already. I feel good. The body feels good. One of the best shapes I’ve been in in my career. I’m 31, and I’m pretty happy about that. It’s been a good preseason. To think that we have another four weeks until our first game is exciting as well.”
All teammates give each other good natured ribbing, what do Sporting players give you heck for?
“Definitely the nose. [forward] Daniel [Salloi]’s got a big nose. I’ve got a big nose. [Goalkeeper Tim Melia] Timmy’s got a big nose. So, we always kill each other… the ongoing slaughter between all of us.”
What was your reaction to Sporting signing a third left back?
“It’s a little of a head scratcher because it wasn’t a needed position. There is a business side to soccer, so they have to do something… I don’t know what their plan is. I don’t know if maybe they are wanting to push me into center back at times because we do need another center back. We will wait and find out.”