Sporting KC lost for the first time in the 2013 preseason on Saturday, going down to Montreal Impact, 2-1. These three points will really hurt come October.
For the part of the game that mattered, Sporting Kansas City looked thoroughly dominant en route to a 2-1 loss to Montreal Impact in each team's opening game of the 2013 Disney Pro Soccer Classic. Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes fielded what could very possibly be the starting lineup for the season opener on March 2, with the one exception being Chance Myers who missed Saturday's game through injury.
Matt Besler and Graham Zusi returned to the squad for the first time in preseason after a month with the United States national team. Benny Feilhaber also made his first competitive appearance in the preseason after a slightly shorter time with the national team. Among the other regular starters, the three American internationals all looked fit, sharp and ready for the regular season - almost like they've been playing in competitive trainings and games for the last month.
Zusi was undoubtedly the standout man on the afternoon, and it was his trademark, long-range effort that opened up the afternoon's scoring in the 19th minute. Harkening back to his 2011 season which saw him win MLS' Breakout Player of the Year award, Zusi unleashed a shot from all of 25 or 30 yards that blew by Impact goalkeeper Troy Perkins and nestled itself into the upper lefthand corner of the net. With Kei Kamara on loan at Norwich City until at least May 6, Zusi's production as a wide player - and most notably his ability to fire in goals from long distance - will be paramountly important to Sporting's early season successes.
The 2011 and 2012 Eastern Conference regular season top-place finishers went on to enjoy a majority of the game's possession through the remainder of the first half, creating a few half-chances here and there, never really allowing the Montreal starting group to get into a passing rhythm or find their footing as the game wore on.
All that hard work was undone in the waning moments of the first half, though, when Zusi and fellow midfielder Paulo Nagamura momentarily acted on opposite wavelengths, causing Zusi to play a ball into space where he thought Nagamura would be. Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier was instead the one to receive the pass, settling with one touch before springing forward Marco Di Vaio all the way through the Sporting backline and in on Jimmy Nielsen's goal.
Di Vaio finished calmly and collectedly, as would be expected of a Serie A veteran, giving Montreal a favorable if not completely unjust 1-1 scoreline at halftime.
The second half began with only one change for Sporting KC - Aurelien Collin replaced by Ike Opara - but it was a different story following the short, halftime intermission. Montreal looked the livelier of the two sides, suddenly first to nearly every loose ball.
This sudden change in aggressiveness paid off for Montreal in the 59th minute when Andrew Wenger, the 2012 MLS SuperDraft first overall pick, got in behind the Sporting backline and poked the eventual game-winner through the legs of Nielsen.
Mass substitutes were made in the following minute by Vermes - by design, not as a reaction to conceding a second goal. Of note, Yann Songo'o, Lawrence Olum, Peterson Joseph, CJ Sapong and Soony Saad entered the game. Saad scored what would have been the game's equalizing goal with about 10 minutes to play following a well-worked through ball from Sapong, but was wisely judged to be offside by the assistant referee.
What to make it Saturday's performance: The key players - Zusi, Besler, Feilhaber, and Bobby Convey to an extent - looked solid, putting in good 60 minute shifts. It shouldn't be surprising that Zusi and Besler meshed back into the team so quickly after a month away, but it was quite impressive nonetheless.
Oriol Rosell continued to show flashes of his playoff performance to end 2012, proving he's a serious contender to start at defensive midfielder when the regular season opens at Philadelphia Union on March 2. Rosell is simply an aware, heady player who not only rarely makes mistakes, but also cleans up others' mishaps. He drives forward from deep in the midfield, carrying the ball a long way and moving the start point of attack a good 15 to 20 yards up the field - something that will make the lives of Feilhaber and Zusi exponentially easier if he can do so in regular season play.
Chance Myers is an incredibly important player to this Sporting KC team. With the width provided by Myers along the right side not available on Saturday, the center of midfield got quite crowded and caused too many turnovers in the center third. Once Myers returns - there's been no word as to how long he might be out - things will surely flow much smoother as was the case in 2011 and 2012.