SKC Notebook: Júlio César finding feet after rocky start

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Júlio César didn’t have the brightest start to his Sporting Kansas City tenure, but the 32-year-old Brazilian is starting to find his feet in Major League Soccer.

Júlio César began this season, his first in Kansas City, as a starter at center back but a couple of shaky performances, the addition of Aurélien Collin and Matt Besler’s resurgence relegated him to a substitute’s role for much of May and June. And although Besler and Collin are still clearly the preferred defensive pairing, Júlio César certainly proved his value in Sporting’s last two games.

He started in central defense for a suspended Collin against Philadelphia then transitioned successfully into a holding midfield role against Vancouver, even scoring the game-winning goal on a sliding volley from a Graham Zusi corner kick and Omar Bravo header across the six-yard box.

“When foreign players come to this league, some guys take a little time to understand the physicality and also the speed of MLS,” manager Peter Vermes said of the European-schooled Brazilian. “Sometimes they need to sit out awhile and see how it is from the sideline. Obviously with his pedigree and his résumé, he’s picked it up pretty quickly.”

While it took Júlio César a few months to come to grips with the physical side of the league, his tactical acumen was never in doubt.

Even before starting Kansas City’s past two games, Júlio César began finding his comfort zone as a substitute in victories against Dallas and San Jose. In both matches, Vermes sent the former Real Madrid man in late to play just ahead of the center backs and lock the game down from a defensive standpoint—a role that allowed Júlio César to take advantage of his experience to snuff attacks before they truly gained momentum.

He manned that deep-lying position from the opening whistle against the Whitecaps and had one rough moment when he lost Camilo on the match’s opening goal before settling in and helping Sporting to their seventh straight league game without a defeat.

“He reads the game very well,” Vermes said. “He was able to tactically play a role for us that would take away a strength of the other team. I thought [against Vancouver], for me, he was close to being the best player on the field for us because of the way he played tactically. His decisions were excellent, we had great spacing between the back line and the midfielders and he was very calm.”

For his part, Júlio César says he is comfortable at either center back position or holding midfield. He said the midfield role even equates to a sort of third central defender, giving him the opportunity to play to his strengths and distribute the ball without the responsibility associated with being the final man back. 

“I can do this position because it is to play three defenders,” Júlio César said. “If you see, I drop back. If I don’t have any mark, I go forward to press. It is a clever position. You must think during the game and take the right position.”

Espinoza excels in midfield role days after returning from Gold Cup

After playing exclusively at left back before leaving Kansas City for Gold Cup duty with Honduras, Roger Espinoza found himself starting in the midfield against Vancouver.

The positional switch wasn’t a huge surprise — Espinoza stood out for los Catrachos in the middle of the field against Costa Rica and Mexico — but the timing was a little curious as he had played nearly 120 minutes against El Tri on Wednesday.

Vermes said he asked Espinoza how he felt about playing on Thursday and was met with a typical answer from young player followed by a productive performance on both sides of the ball against the Whitecaps.

“His response right back to me was, ‘Hey, the rest of the guys played on Wednesday. I can play on Saturday as well,’” Vermes said. “I think Roger has a comfortability in the midfield right now, and you can see that he gained a lot of confidence playing the last two games for Honduras.”