Stejskal: Surging Diego Rubio leading Sporting KC out of their summer swoon

Diego Rubio arrived at Sporting Kansas City in March 2016 with plenty of hype, but without a firm place on the field.

Though he joined the club as a Designated Player, the Chilean striker has largely struggled to fit in at SKC. He was planted firmly on the bench behind Dom Dwyer in 2016, suffered a torn ACL that October that sidelined him for much of 2017 and, after starting the season opener this year, immediately lost his place in the lineup to Khiry Shelton.

His injury and inconsistency led to scant playing time: Through his first two and a half seasons in MLS, Rubio appeared in just 40 regular season matches for Kansas City. He only made 15 starts. By the time the summer transfer window opened in July, Rubio had made just two starts in 2018.

But as the club continued their multi-window search for a No. 9 and eventually re-acquired Krisztian Nemeth in a trade with New England, Rubio found his footing. The 25-year-old made his first start since the opener in SKC’s 2-2 home draw with Toronto FC on July 7 and recorded an assist. He’s only gotten better since. Rubio has three goals and two assists in Sporting's last four games, helping the club pull out of a summer swoon with three straight wins. He bagged a brace in SKC’s 3-0 victory against Portland on Saturday, giving him six goals and four assists in just 448 minutes this season. That’s good for 1.21 goals per 90 minutes played, an absurd rate that’s first in the league among players with at least five goals in 2018.

“Of course, I am happy, happy to play more, to have more minutes, to be important in the team,” Rubio told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “I just need to keep doing everything that I’m doing now. And I think now, when you are in this position, you need to work harder, I think, than before.”

Hard work has been the major theme behind Rubio’s hot run of form. SKC head coach Peter Vermes said his solid streak is largely due to his improved work ethic, and Rubio agreed with his manager’s assessment. With Sporting’s offseason narrative centered around their inability to score down the stretch in 2017, Rubio said he entered this season thinking only of putting the ball in the back of the net. That led to a bit of a dip in his possession play, off-the-ball movement and defensive work, all factors that contributed to his extended run on the bench behind the active Shelton.

His workrate has gone up recently, however, and it’s led to some excellent results. After coming on as a sub and scoring a late winner against Houston on Aug. 4, Rubio started and played a role in both of SKC’s goals in their 2-0 victory at LAFC on Aug. 11. He won the ball in the attacking third, drove towards the box and picked out Gerso Fernandes to assist on the opener, then delivered a smart ball from the left flank to Daniel Salloi on the play that led to SKC’s successful second-half penalty.

On Saturday, he ripped a shot into the lower-left corner from distance to give SKC a 1-0 lead and capped a long off-ball run with some fine control and a clean finish to double the advantage in the 37th minute.

“It’s been good, it’s been good mostly because of the work ethic that he’s had in the position on both sides of the ball,” Vermes told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s with the ball and without the ball, his work ethic has been really, really good and I think that’s what gets goal scorers goals.”

“If you look at this last game, the two goals that he scores and a third chance that he has where he cuts across the box, a lot of that is because his movement off-the-ball when we have it,” Vermes added later. “And if you look at the first goal when Gerso scores against LAFC, he helps win the ball back right on the edge of their final third and then he gives the final pass. And again, if you’re not giving that effort, neither of those two things are happening.”

Of course, Rubio isn’t the only option Vermes has at No. 9. Nemeth was brought in to make an impact at the position and Vermes said that Shelton, who has two goals and two assists in 16 games this year, is set to return in two weeks from the right MCL tear he suffered in early July. Rubio will have to fight them off to stay in the starting lineup.

Rubio (left) and Shelton (right) will battle for playing time down the stretch | USA Today Sports

Rubio welcomes that pressure, and Vermes is excited to have several solid options at a position that’s given SKC trouble for the past couple of seasons. He compared his current forward corps to the group that helped Kansas City win MLS Cup in 2013, when Dwyer, Claudio Bieler, C.J. Sapong and, for the first half of the season, Kei Kamara gave SKC a slew of dangerous options up top.

“I think it’s very similar to what we had in 2013 in that area of the field, so I feel good about that,” said Vermes. “We have different options and all the guys have little different qualities, which is also really good. It’s interesting because we have different qualities in the forwards that we have, but also we have some incredible competition there now, which I think always helps bring out the best in all of them.”

For now, Rubio is the one firing. If he can continue, he won’t just further cement himself as an important piece in Kansas City, he’ll help the second-place club make a real run in the Western Conference playoffs.

“I just want to continue to win,” he said. “If I play, if I don’t play, I want the team to win every game. This is the only thing that I want. If I am in the team, I am going to try to help the team 200 percent. If I am out, if I need to come in as a sub, I’m going to try to help the team too with a lot of energy. I just want to help the team win every game.”

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