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Doubters tough to find after Júlio César's recent surge

KANSAS CITY, Mo – For a couple months at least, it looked like Júlio César might not be a fit for the physical, demanding style of play in Major League Soccer.

First came a shaky performance in Vancouver just three games into the regular season, when fellow Brazilian and Vancouver Whitecaps attacker Camilo Sanvezzo exposed the 32-year-old’s lack of pace. One game later, there were doubts in Columbus, the result of two clumsy challenges that seemed to reinforce questions about Júlio César’s ability to keep up.

But, heading into a crucial matchup against the Philadelphia Union on Friday (8:30 pm ET, FOX Soccer), it turns out those concerns were decidedly premature.

Since starting Sporting’s last matchup against the Union on June 22, Júlio César has has found himself in manager Peter Vermes’ starting XI for 15 of 16 league matches, flip-flopping between center back and defensive midfield while scoring two goals and erasing any reservations about his ability to contribute in MLS.

“His progress or adaptation has been amazing,” Vermes said. “Júlio has an incredible résumé; Real Madrid, AC Milan. Those are two of the biggest clubs in the world. It’s easy to see now why he was able to play in those clubs. He was one of the best players in the game [last weekend against RSL]. Not for just us, but for both teams. He shut down the middle of the park like nobody’s business.”

And although his first few months in Sporting blue weren’t exactly inspiring, there’s no arguing that Kansas City have taken off since he entered the lineup for good.

Including that scoreless draw at PPL Park back in June, Vermes’ side is 7-3-6 since Júlio César became a permanent cog in the rotation, setting the stage for a final five games in which Kansas City have a prime opportunity to complete a worst-to-first narrative and win the Eastern Conference following a dreadful start.

“Personally, I am very happy with my performance as an individual and also from the team,” Júlio César said. “Everyone is focused on getting in the playoffs as quickly as possible. We see that the Los Angeles Galaxy is already qualified. We want to be there, too.”

And if the last three-plus months are any indication, the Brazilian will play a large part should Sporting meet expectations and qualify for their first postseason since 2008.

The biggest question at this point is in which position – central defense or holding midfield – he will be asked to contribute.

When Aurélien Collin was out of the lineup with a back injury, Júlio César slotted into central defense next to Matt Besler effortlessly. As he did at Salt Lake, Vermes has also shown a propensity to play him as an anchor in central midfield, allowing the veteran to use his timely tackling and ability to read the game as a shield in front of the back line.

Now that Collin is back to full fitness, it looks likely that Júlio César will find himself in the midfield more often than not. It’s a position he says closely mirrors playing in central defense and allows him to create a safety net for the two roving midfielders in front of him while providing additional cover for the back line.

“He doesn’t get pulled out of position too much,” Besler said. “I think that’s just his natural tendency to not to move around too much. That’s a good thing because you need someone who is always in there. We know he’s going to be that guy. No one ever questions his mental aspect of the game because he almost always makes the right decision.”

It also helps that his quick decision making and technical ability allow him to be close to flawless in possession, a trait developed during more than a decade as a professional.

“There is a calmness to him when he has the ball,” Vermes said. “A lot of times, he gets it and just plays it where it is supposed to go. It’s almost like, ‘Oh, that was so easy.’ But it was easy because he’s doing the simple thing, which is usually the best choice.”

Needless to say, it’s a far cry from the days early in the season when there were whispers that Kansas City may have made an expensive mistake. These days there are only plaudits surrounding his name.

And although he was once a potential scapegoat, Júlio César is now a stalwart of Sporting’s climb to the top of the Eastern Conference, putting his stamp on MLS one game at a time.

“I’m happy with everything,” he said. “The life is good.”