KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sporting Kansas City's fans have gotten used to a hometown presence in central defense ever since Matt Besler became first a regular, then a star and finally a key cog in the US national team.
But an all-Homegrown central defensive corps in Sporting’s XI? That would be a new one, but it could happen on Friday when Sporting visit the Houston Dynamo (8:30 pm ET; MLS Live) for their last league match before the World Cup break.
Converted fullback Kevin Ellis and 17-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown partnered for the last 81 minutes of last weekend's 1-0 loss at D.C. United, and both of them earned good marks from manager Peter Vermes – especially Palmer-Brown, who had to come on early after Aurelien Collin came out with a recurring hamstring tweak.
“For 17 years old, I thought he was incredible,” Vermes told reporters on Wednesday. “He's very good. If he was 17 or 27, at the end of the day, his performance was excellent.”
One sequence especially stood out for Vermes and Palmer-Brown alike: Shortly after the young center back came on, veteran Eddie Johnson got past him with a step-over move – only to have the ball tackled away after Palmer-Brown's speedy recovery.
“I felt a lot more comfortable out there,” Palmer-Brown said on Tuesday. “That's not the way I wanted to go in, especially seeing Collin go down, but it's soccer. That's the game we play, and that's what we're here for. So once I got out there cold, that first step-over, Eddie got me real good, but then I felt I settled into the game.”
That stood in marked contrast to Palmer-Brown's debut on May 18, when he conceded a penalty and drew two yellow cards in 64 minutes of a 2-1 loss to Chicago. That was as the lone center back in a 3-5-2 formation, though, and he looked far more comfortable alongside Ellis in Sporting's usual 4-3-3 against D.C.
Ellis started Sporting's first five games across all competitions at right back, while Chance Myers was recovering from a groin strain, and then was loaned to USL PRO affiliate Oklahoma City Energy FC when Myers returned. He was recalled after Myers tore his left Achilles tendon, ending his season, in a 2-2 draw against Toronto FC on May 23.
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“He's been really good,” Vermes said. “I think he's adapted and adjusted to the position really well. I think he's done a very serviceable job for us. It helps that he's extremely athletic because he can get up and he's good in the air. At the same time, I think he has a pretty good understanding of reading the game. I think that comes from the fact that early on in his career he was a forward. I think he understands what a lot of guys are trying to do.”
Ellis, who is in his fourth season with Sporting, also played some center back in college and during his academy days.
“I kind of fell in love with the position,” he told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “Playing here now just makes you fall in love with it even more. Everything's in front of you. You have time and space, and you get to be a little more aggressive during the game, so it makes it more fun.”
At 5-foot-9, Ellis isn't the prototypical tall center back – but he makes up for it, he said, by knowing where to be on the pitch.
“It's being in good starting positions,” he said. “If you're in a good starting position, you can be any height.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.