KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Jacob Peterson came out of the University of Indiana as a star striker, a two-time NCAA champion and a semifinalist for the Herrman Trophy award that is given annually to the nation's top collegiate soccer player.
He discovered that things would be different in MLS – and it was either adapt, or let the pro game pass him by.
As he put it last season, “Nobody ever sets out to be a role player – but you do what you have to, if you want to play.”
That approach has served him well, especially since his move to Sporting Kansas City before the 2012 season. Peterson has never been a double-digit scorer, never made more than 17 starts in a league season – and yet here he is, more than halfway through his 11th MLS campaign, a key player in Sporting's drive for a sixth straight postseason appearance.
“At some point, I realized I wasn't going to be the Dom Dwyer of the team – the guy that's scoring 20 goals,” he told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “I'm OK with that. As long as our team's winning, and we're consistently making the playoffs and challenging for titles and championships, that's the most important thing for me.”
He did it with a tireless work ethic, a willingness to play anywhere on the pitch, and the pain tolerance of sedated granite. He's shown unselfishness in big situations, most notably last year's US Open Cup final, when he ceded his turn in the penalty stage – and his chance to be the hero of the match – to Jordi Quintilla, who rolled home the winning conversion and made “Jake, I go,” an enduring phrase in Kansas City.
Oh, and he's also found a scoring touch of late. Going into Sunday's away match with Portland (4 pm ET; ESPN in US | MLS LIVE in Canada), Peterson has scored in back-to-back games for the first time since his rookie season in 2006.
It's no big deal, Peterson insists – nothing more than manager Peter Vermes, a gritty central defender during his MLS playing days, expects of everyone on the team.
“There's a lot of guys that have that same mentality,” Peterson said. “You don't make it to this level without having a certain type of toughness and a certain type of self-motivation – but even more so here, with the way that Peter has chosen guys, the way that he trains and the way that he coaches. I think that's a reflection on him and the way that he was as a player.
“It's certainly not just me. There are plenty of guys out there tougher than I am.”
Still, on a team marked by a willingness to play through pain, Peterson stands out – not least because of the story behind the surgical scars on his right shoulder. Ask people around the club to share their favorite “Jacob Peterson is tough” story, and they keep coming back to the stretch run of Sporting's 2012 season – even if they weren't even with the club at the time.
“I came to the team in 2013,” defender Ike Opara said. “I saw his scar, and I was curious about it, because that was my first preseason. I was asking him about it – 'You played on that?' – and he was like, 'Yeah.' I was like, 'All right. Kudos to you, man.'”
That story started on a night in late July, during a 2-1 home loss to Columbus, Peterson went down hard as he contended for a ball near the endline. His right shoulder dug hard into the pitch, spraining it badly. Peterson's night was over, but not his season. Even in the locker room afterward, when he needed help just to button his shirt, he was already talking about coming back.
“I just wanted to play,” he said on Wednesday. “We always joke around that it's all mental. If you can take it in your mind, you should be good enough to play. Maybe that's the old-school mentality, the football mentality – Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler. 'Those who stay will be champions,' Bo Schembechler's motto. I certainly like that mentality.”
Peterson needed surgery to repair the shoulder, but put it off until the offseason in hopes of helping Sporting – who won the 2012 US Open Cup in his absence – reach the MLS Cup final. They got knocked out in the Eastern Conference semis, but Peterson did make good on his promise to return.
He even tried, unsuccessfully, to get back for the Open Cup title match.
“I remember that day, the day we were playing the game,” midfielder Roger Espinoza said. “Before the game, before he went to warm up, [assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin] had to test him. The guy was getting hit, falling on the ground, and he still wanted to play with a separated shoulder. That's tough enough. I think I would have walked out right away.”
It's been more of the same since then, although nothing quite so dramatic.
In his last outing – a 1-0 home victory, also against the Timbers – Peterson was about to be subbed off just past the half-hour mark after knocking knees in a collision near midfield. Cameron Porter had already been announced on the public address system at Sporting Park. Peterson, however, convinced Vermes to let him go back on, and delivered the winning header in the 50th minute (video above).
“I thought he needed a sub,” Vermes said afterward. “But he just banged knees, so when he said he was fine, good, and ready to go it was an easy decision."
The decision led to three important points in a tight Western Conference race thanks to Peterson's third goal of the regular season – one short of his career high, set in 2006 and matched in 2012.
“I have always thought that Jake was a little too energetic at times,” said Vermes, who first coached Peterson as an assistant with the US under-20 national team in 2004-05. “He is almost too excited in and around the box. I think what has happened is that he has calmed down a little bit in and around the box.”
“That was a world-class finish,” Vermes said. “But he took it based on being in a good place because of his thinking. I would take it a different place and say that last week’s game was the best game he has ever played for us from just a pure decision making point of view.
"His decisions to go to goal, to serve, to shoot, to keep the ball for us, to spin out in the corner was top class. That is what has been great about him. He has done really well for us in his decision-making.”