KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Thank you, Roger Espinoza.
Look, I get measured, cautious responses from athletes. Nobody wants to say too much; players can hit unexpected struggles and a team that’s hot in May can be a flaming wreck in October.
Still, it’s nice to have a guy who doesn’t wrap answers in layers of ‘It’s early’ and ‘We’re not even thinking about that right now.’
And when you ask him whether center back Ike Opara could hang at the international level, Espinoza – Sporting Kansas City’s veteran box-to-box midfielder and a two-time World Cup veteran with Honduras – doesn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, he’s a guy who could play at that level,” Espinoza says. “He wouldn’t have to change anything. He’s played against some great forwards – from Europe, from South America, from Central America, from Africa. His speed, his ability to win balls, to pass the ball, the way he reads the game – he could play anywhere.”
Espinoza’s right, by the way. Fully recovered from injury-shortened nightmare seasons in 2014 and 2015, Opara is arguably the best right-side central defender in MLS thanks to his recovery speed, dominating aerial presence, heady one-on-one defense and ability to make clean tackles in dangerous places.
“If he loses the ball,” Espinoza says, “he’s just going to recover and get it back from you two seconds later.”
Opara, as expected, laughs and demurs when asked about his chances for a call-up.
“No idea,” he says. “Not really a focus of mine. I’ve always been consistent with the idea of ‘You take care of what you need to do. Everything else follows.’ If it happens, great.”
That said, he absolutely deserves a look this summer from Yanks coach Bruce Arena – most likely in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Sporting fans would rage, but Arena ought to call both Opara and USMNT veteran Matt Besler and pair them up – Besler on the left, Opara on the right. One anchor, one destroyer.
It’s hard to argue against that when, going into Sunday’s match at Minnesota United (1:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada) Sporting have conceded a staggeringly stingy three goals in nine matches.
As manager Peter Vermes and his players like to say – and demonstrate – that defense starts up front. Also, the backline’s job got a lot easier this year with Ilie’s arrival in defensive midfield. But the center backs are a keeper’s last line of defense, and the Besler/Opara synergy has a lot to do with Sporting being on pace to shatter a pair of MLS team-defense records – all of which the club currently own.
With six clean sheets so far, Sporting need 11 more in 25 matches to best the single-season shutout record – set in 2000, when Vermes was a lone center back for a Wizards side that won Kansas City’s first MLS Cup and lone Supporters’ Shield.
Sporting also are on pace to obliterate the record for team scoring defense, set by a 2012 SKC side that conceded just 27 times in 34 matches – a goals-against average of .794.
“Records are made to be broken, right?” Espinoza says. “I remember we got close (to the shutout record) in 2012. Obviously, if you break those, it’s a great thing. It means your team is playing well, doing the right things in a game. I would hope we do it.”
Then he recovers, just for a bit: “It’s not in my mind now. I just want to win games.”
Even that’s more than others will say about whether this defense is the best Sporting have ever had (and, consequently, the best ever in MLS).
“Who cares what we’ve done already? All that matters is trying to get better,” Besler said. “I think the group as a whole, we have to get better and we have to continue working on that. We have to focus on Sunday, because that’s going to be a challenge.”
The talk of constant improvement isn’t just lip service. Vermes is a demanding guy. One of the things he demands is that players internalize things, demand more of themselves so he doesn’t have to.
But how do you improve on a defense that’s giving up one-freaking-third of a goal a game?
Not making Tim Melia record at least one monster save per match would be one way. So would not letting up late with a victory already in hand. Those are doable things, and Vermes expects them to be done.
“If you forget to work on something this week, or you feel, ‘Hey, we’re doing this really well. We can sacrifice that,’ then all of a sudden it comes to bite you,” he says. “So what we’re trying to do is make sure that we have a good opportunity to keep us in an environment where we’re constantly reminded on the field of things we have to work on, and making sure that we train them.”
But let’s not lose sight of what is for what could be: This defense – front to back – is an all-time kind of special. I covered the 2000 team and the 2012 edition, so I’ve seen the competition. And if this edition, holds form, Sporting could be hoisting multiple pieces of silverware this year.
You know what? Make that “will be.”