KANSAS CITY, Missouri. – Not long after Soni Mustivar came to town, he was at a clinic with his new Sporting Kansas City teammates when an autograph-seeker approached.
Both of them were in for a surprise: “I signed it,” Mustivar remembers, “and they said, 'Oh, you're not C.J. Sapong?'”
Never mind that Sapong is half a head taller than Mustivar, that there's no real resemblance between the two and that they don't play the same position. At the time of the clinic, Sapong wasn't even with Sporting after being dealt to the Philadelphia Union in the offseason.
Mustivar laughed when he recalled the moment, during a one-on-one conversation with MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. He laughs a lot, actually, and why shouldn't he? He's in a good environment, playing for a team that despite its recent struggles in league play sits one U.S. Open Cup Final win away from its third trophy in four years.
People know not only who he is, but how important his presence in defensive midfield is to their team. And after missing three games with a strained adductor last month, the 25-year-old Mustivar is playing his way back into top form as Sporting look to halt their five-match winless streak on Friday against FC Dallas (6 p.m. CT, KMCI-TV, UniMas).
“He seems to be functioning without any hindrance, and I think from game to game he's getting fitter and fitter again,” manager Peter Vermes told reporters on Thursday. “The other piece is that it was a huge task for him to play the last two games he did. I wasn't sure he was going to, but having done that and the rest he's gotten up to this game I think is huge. Hopefully it's going to be a step in the right direction.”
That's good news for Sporting, whose greatest successes under Vermes have come when they've had a anchor at the base of their midfield: a Julio Cesar, an Uri Rosell, and now the up-and-coming Haitian international.
The three are anything but carbon copies of each other, though.
Julio Cesar, now retired, was a cagy veteran who didn't spend a whole lot of time running but had a knack for knowing just when to make a move to blow up an opposing possession. Rosell, sold to Sporting Clube de Portugal in the middle of the 2014 season, was an interception machine as well, but also a precise distributor.
Mustivar? He succeeds by being all over the place, as his postmatch heat maps attest.
“Uri was different in that he was much more involved in coming forward, where the other two guys are a lot more defensive,” Vermes explains. “It’s not that one is that much better than the others. The other two have maybe a little bit different tendency than Uri had, but Soni covers the most ground of any guy that we've had.”
That's a good thing for Sporting, if Mustivar can stay healthy and not wear himself out.
“I think any player that you have, you're always worried – I wouldn't say worried; you're always checking up on them that they're not overtrained or putting themselves in harm's way,” Vermes said. He's probably somebody you have to be a little bit more concerned about or maybe check up on a little bit more, just because he does cover a lot more ground in games.”
It's a good thing someone else is checking up on him, Mustivar said, because he's not all that good at doing it himself.
“I'm the type of guy that when I'm on the field, I don't calculate how much I run,” he said. “I just give all I've got, and then hopefully that helps the team. The coaching staff here have to tie me down sometimes in training, because I want more, more, more.”
Mustivar comes by that high energy level naturally, which wasn't always great for his parents' piece of mind as he was growing up in France.
“They lost me at Euro Disney once,” he said. “They had to come to the lost child area to find me.”
That happens, of course. If kids didn't have a tendency to wander off, there wouldn't be a need for designated places to pick them up. But in Mustivar's case, it was a regular thing – and it usually happened at high speed.
“I was the type of kid who was running everywhere, everywhere,” he said. “My mother lost me a couple of times in the supermarket. I would see something and just start running. I couldn't stop. I couldn't stay. I needed to run.”
From an early age, soccer provided a place for Mustivar to burn off that energy.
“I had a coach when I was young who said, 'I don't care if you play bad, if you miss passes, but you need to give everything. I think I've just kept that on my mind forever.”
Mustivar made his senior debut in 2008 with hometown side Sporting Club de Bastia, but decided it was time to make a move away from the Corsican club after being loaned to Orleans for the 2010-11 season.
“I was in my last season at Bastia and things weren't going well for some reason with the coach,” he said. “So I had a talk with my agent, and he said, 'Hey, just get out of France and see something else. Some other culture, other football, just something else.' I believe my agent as my dad, because he was with me since I was 11 years old. He was the first to tell me, 'Hey, if you work hard, you're going to be a professional footballer.'”
The “something else” turned out to be a three-year stint with Romanian powerhouse FC Petrolul Ploiesti, where Mustivar overcame a rocky start to become not only a key player for the Yellow Wolves, but also their captain.
“Things didn't go well at the beginning, but I wasn't the type of guy to go, 'I don't like this, no,'” Mustivar said. “I'm the type of guy who thinks it's going to be good, and I took the time, and finally I spent three beautiful years in Romania.”
Mustivar speaks Romanian now – along with French, Creole and English – but he didn't when he was made Petrolul's captain.
And when he was given the armband, the advice that came along with it was reminiscent of the advice Mustivar got from his youth coach.
“The coach said, 'I don't care if you don't speak Romanian, but you model your attitude on the field. That's why I'm going to make you captain, because you lead the team with only your attitude on the field,’” recalls Mustivar.
“I'm not the guy with the skills, the great shot. I think I got my attitude from the academy in Bastia. That's the first thing you learn there. The coach told me, 'It's not only technique, only physical. It's 90 percent mental and 10 percent technique.’”
There's a financial component to the pro game, though, and things were falling apart for Petrolul Ploiesti on that front. The club declared insolvency after the 2014-15 season, and several club officials were detained by authorities on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering.
“It was going well, and then we had some problems with the finance,” Mustivar said. “Our owner went to jail, and we weren't getting paid. All that stuff” – he makes a motion like a nose-diving airplane – “down, down, down.”
Sporting came calling at the right time, Mustivar said, and brought him in late in the preseason. And while he faced a steep curve to get integrated into the club, Mustivar couldn't be happier with the move.
“Peter knows what he's doing,” he said. “If he brought me into the team, he knew I could be a good fit quickly. That was his first word to me: 'I know you're a good fit for the team, for the way we play. You're the type of guy we need.'”
In turn, Sporting have provided Mustivar with the stability he sought when he left Romania, and he showed the depth of his appreciation over the summer, when he turned down a Gold Cup call-up from Haiti to concentrate on his club development.
“Everything is great here,” he said. “Romania, it was not as professional. Here, there's no detail you don't know. Everything you need to know, you know it. For me, it's really the best conditions to work in.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.