It’s no secret. Last year’s version of Sporting KC (something called the Wizards) had issues at the center back position.
In what was Peter Vermes’ first full season as coach, the team picked up the bad habit of giving up “soft goals.”
How did this happen?
A day or so before the first game of the 2010 campaign, longtime captain and veteran central defender Jimmy Conrad was stripped of the captaincy in favor of midfielder Davy Arnaud. Obviously, Vermes and Conrad had some issues. Many sensed that Conrad’s days in KC were numbered.
Despite the demotion, Conrad continued to start at the center defender position.
As the soft goals continued to mount, Vermes scrambled to shore up the back line with a variety of players – Pablo Escobar (later cut), Shavar Thomas, Matt Besler, Nick Kounenakis (later cut) – but nothing seemed to work, and the Wizards missed the playoffs for the second straight season.
Disappointing and unacceptable by the standards of the new ownership group, OnGoal. "Got to make the playoffs. Absolutely have to make the playoffs. Having missed for the last two years is not right, so we have to get there this year at a minimum," said team president Robb Heineman in a recent interview with MLSSoccer.com.
Most pundits agreed that the center of defense needed to be addressed in the offseason. The Wizards (who by that time were re-branded as Sporting KC) seemed to agree and decided not to re-sign Jimmy Conrad for a ninth season. Eventually Conrad was shipped off to Chivas in the re-entry draft.
Then, in what was a surprise to most observers, SKC selected a forward, CJ Sapong, with their first pick in the MLS SuperDraft.
So who is going to step in and solidify the SKC back line in what is looking to be one of the more important seasons in team history?
All signs point to Matt Besler, the third year center defender out of Notre Dame who played in almost every game his rookie year, but then regressed and struggled to find the field last season.
But this year is different. Besler has come into camp in better shape, stronger, faster, and ready to help solve the "soft goal" problems of 2010. And Besler feels the back line is a more cohesive group than last year.
"I think this year we understand what he [Vermes] wants from us and we understand what it takes to get to the next level, so we’re all on the same page this year," said Besler of the high pressure philosophy implemented by Vermes. "Anytime you have change, there’s just some guys who don’t do well with change…" Besler pauses contemplatively for a second, before adding simply, "Yeah… yeah."
Was it Jimmy Conrad? Besler doesn’t think so.
"Jimmy was a professional about it like he always is and he was still a leader, still himself. Davy [Arnaud] just stepped up his leadership. If it did affect people then I don’t think they’re strong enough mentally, because it shouldn’t affect them."
Besler knows this is a huge year for him, and he’s doesn’t mince words or muddy things up with typical sports clichés:
"Last year I didn’t play as much as I wanted to and I didn’t have a good year, I guess. So [Coach Vermes and I] sat down and went over the year in review and he challenged me coming into this year to kind of change my attitude a little bit, I guess you could say."
"We sat down and he’s like, you know you’re going into your third year – you may think you’re young, but you’re really not anymore – so if you want to be a center back on my team you’re going to have to be a leader and be vocal."
Another thing Vermes wanted to see from Besler?
"My air game, heading both offensively and defensively, so I worked on that a lot in the offseason."
"Air game" in soccer is synonymous with "toughness." In effect, Vermes was calling Besler out for being "soft." Rather than get upset, Besler went the opposite direction, understanding that his coach wasn’t giving up on him just yet. He trained like a madman in the offseason, determined to win back his starting spot by becoming a harder, more dependable player.
"When the last season was over I kind of wanted to take a break from the soccer ball. And I used that time – there was about a month – I just sat back away from actual soccer and just worked on becoming bigger, stronger, faster. I definitely feel a change in my physical play."
While some players may not have seen eye to eye with Vermes last season, Besler seems perfectly in sync with the SKC boss.
"I enjoy that he’s looking out for me. Some guys might not like it because he’s in your ear a lot, but for me I enjoy it. I know he’s only trying to make me the best player I can be, and obviously he has a lot of experience at that position."
In last night’s season opening 3-2 victory over Chivas USA, Besler started at center defender alongside new acquisition Julio Cesar. Besler’s positioning was good throughout, as he cut off several through balls and headed several dangerous crosses off the line.
SKC opened the scoring in the second minute when rookie CJ Sapong gathered a misplayed ball in the Chivas box and blasted a near post volley into the net. Sapong showed very nicely, and except for a mental mistake later in the game, he was one of the most effective players on the pitch for 90 minutes.
Another SKC newcomer, Mexican star Omar Bravo, showed his knack for the net with a nice chip over the head of Chivas keeper Zack Thornton just before half time, and another opportunistic goal when he slipped the ball to the back post in the second half. Both of Bravo’s goals were assisted by Kei Kamara.
Chivas had few real dangerous chances throughout, and both their goals came from corner kicks. Their first goal bounced off the back of a Chivas player, then dropped perfectly to the foot of former KC defender Jimmy Conrad, who belted the point blank into the back of the net. Kind of a lucky bounce for Chivas, and little can be done about those kinds of goals.
Chivas’ second goal came from a mental mistake by Sapong, who failed to step up after a corner was cleared, keeping a man onside who simply slotted the ball past Jimmy Nielsen. Rookies will be rookies, but you can bet money CJ won’t make that same mistake again.
Despite the fluky goals, and the absence of starter Michael Harrington at outside defender, the defense looked fairly solid for the full 90 minutes. With a stocked frontline full of scoring threats, no doubt the spotlight is on the SKC defense to prove that 2010’s issues are behind them. Besler doesn’t mind the spotlight and he’s confident his play will be a part of the turnaround.
“I’m looking at this year as a really big year for me. I know that the position I play, center defender, there’s a big opening on the team, and a big need on the team. So I really want to be a contributor this year, and I want to be a guy who’s out there every game, and I want to be a leader for us.”
It’s just one game, but so far Matt Besler has put his money where his mouth is.