KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This isn't how things typically go for Sporting Kansas City. Then again, this isn't a typical year for the defending MLS Cup champions.
One benefit of Sporting's success in recent years has been an increased ability to bring new players – especially young ones – along at a fairly deliberate pace. There's the high-pressing, high-possession 4-3-3 to learn, the stringent fitness requirements to meet, maybe a loan to a USL PRO affiliate to gain match experience.
But with injuries and international absences hitting Sporting's roster hard, three new arrivals have been pressed into the XI – and making contributions to help Kansas City stay in the Eastern Conference hunt going into the World Cup break.
Toni Dovale (pictured right), signed in March from La Liga side Celta de Vigo, has installed himself on the wing in Graham Zusi's absence and scored his first MLS goal in Tuesday's 1-1 home draw with New York (video above). Speedy fullback Igor Julião, loaned later that month from Brazil's Fluminense FC, has taken over at right back after Chance Myers' season-ending Achilles tear.
And with Uri Rosell's lingering quad strain forcing a shuffle in midfield, rookie Alex Martinez has two starts and seven appearances and is showing himself increasingly capable of both winning the ball and distributing it.
“I have confidence in all the guys on our roster,” said manager Peter Vermes, whose club will try to break a four-match winless streak on Saturday at D.C. United (7 pm ET, MLS LIVE). “If I didn't, they wouldn't be on the roster. What's happened is some guys have just been accelerated into having to play on a regular basis, and maybe more so than we would've thought based on some injuries, based on some call-ups. All of that has, like I said, accelerated their entrance into the team. My feeling is, in the long term, it's going to benefit us.”
Dovale, the oldest of the new arrivals at 24, is left-footed but has been playing a good deal on the right side of the pitch. That allows him to screen defenders before shooting, as he did before scoring against the Red Bulls – and nearly did again late in the match, sending in a screamer that Luis Robles had to leap to save – and also allows him to link up with Juliao on the flank, which gave the Red Bulls trouble in their penalty area early on.
“It's because they're both good soccer players,” Vermes said. “They're very intelligent. Really, they're intelligent soccer players. Sometimes you get guys that are good athletes and you're trying to push them toward the good soccer player side. These guys are good soccer players, and that's the reason why they've adapted so well.”
Another reason, Dovale said, is that Vermes' consistency of approach makes it easier for incoming players to adapt.
“I think 100 percent it is because everyone is on the same page,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “The coach works really hard every day, repeating every day the same things, in order that we can get his ideas in a collective movement. I think that's a very long process, and I think the team has been doing this for the last seasons."
“Every game we can see – we win, we draw, we lose – but the idea is the same. All the players are on the same page. So it makes it very easy for me to arrive and get these ideas.”
Julião (pictured right), speaking through an interpreter after the New York match, said MLS' speed of play suits him better but also took some getting used to.
“When I got here, it was a change to adapt to this team, because this is a very fast-paced team,” he said. “In Brazil, it's more slow-paced. But after a few weeks, I adapted pretty quickly. I like that style better, because I to run a lot and go at defenders, too.”
Both also credited veteran midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura with helping them make the transition – and Nagamura, Sporting's acting captain, returned the compliment.
“They're players that are easy to adjust to the team,” he said. “It's not the team adjusting to the players. It's the players adjusting to the team, so they have been doing really well on that.”
Dovale and the 19-year-old Julião both had first-team experience before coming to Kansas City – but not so for Martinez (pictured right), who was taken in the first round of the supplemental draft and is the only draft pick this year to make Sporting's roster.
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“There's definitely a learning curve for him, in that he's got still a ways to go,” Vermes said. “So he's getting a little bit of a baptism by fire, which from that point of view, it's good for him. He just needs to take advantage of the opportunities.”
That was his plan all along, Martinez told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday, despite being passed over in the first two rounds of the 2014 SuperDraft.
“I saw this in my own eyes,” he said. “So maybe other people didn't see it, but this is what I was expecting. This is what I wanted in my life. So to me, it's always something I've had in my mind. It's not something that comes so new to me. Obviously, it did come a lot faster than I expected, but things happened with injuries, and when you're called up you have to step out to play and do whatever you have to do to help the team succeed.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.