Sometimes a little change is a good thing.
Take, for instance, Saturday’s scoreless but entertaining draw between Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United to open the 2017 MLS regular season.
Sporting Kansas City’s lineup at RFK Stadium looked a bit different than it did for most of 2016. And although Peter Vermes’ men were only able to claim a point, every notable change in the manager’s starting XI gave supporters legitimate reason for optimism.
Early encouragement came courtesy of two mononymous MLS debutants, Gerso and Ilie. As Saturday’s match unfolded, Graham Zusi and Jimmy Medranda — both of whom were operating in different positions than they had for most of last year — displayed no shortage of competence in their right back and right wing roles, respectively.
We provide a statistical rundown of these four players below, then save space for Sporting Kansas City’s man of the match. After all, Tim Melia accomplished something Saturday that no other goalkeeper has in Kansas City history.
The freshly minted Designated Player wasted no time showcasing his skillset in the attacking third. His early involvement along the left wing led to a flurry of chances, specifically a teasing cross to Dom Dwyer and a long-range missile that was saved by Bill Hamid. A few highlights of the Bissau-Guinean’s production:
- Three chances created, tied for third most in MLS in Week 1 (through Saturday)
- Five dribbles completed, tied for the most in MLS in Week 1 (through Saturday)
- Nine duels won and three shot attempts (one on target)
"I thought at times he was very dangerous going forward," Vermes said of Gerso after the match. "He was very good one-v-one, he recovered some balls, and his game instincts were really, really good."
The 26-year-old Barcelona youth product showed technical and tactical nous, providing stability as Sporting Kansas City’s holding midfielder. In addition to completing a game-high 67 passes — fourth most in MLS in Week 1 — Ilie intervened heroically in the third minute to block Jared Jeffrey’s goal-bound shot on the edge of the six-yard box.
“Very calm presence, reads the game extremely well," Vermes assessed. "Not only won a lot of balls through reading the passing lanes, but also just his game instincts whether to go to the left or the right, to cover us because that’s where we needed cover, seeing as we were overloaded on one side or what have you. He was really, really good in that regard. And then his ball distribution was fantastic."
Don’t call it a full-on renaissance just yet, but Zusi’s transition to right back continues to pick up steam. The nine-year veteran finished with an MLS career-high 10 duels won, successfully holding D.C. winger Patrick Nyarko in check throughout the evening.
Medranda’s occupation of the right wing was nothing new, per se. Vermes is the first to point out that the diminutive Colombian might be the most versatile piece on Sporting KC’s roster. Nevertheless, Medranda was asked to play a position on Saturday that he hadn’t for the vast majority of last season. This didn’t stop the 23-year-old from having a noticeable impact on both sides of the pitch.
First and foremost, Sporting KC had Medranda to thank for making the first of two straight goal-line clearances in the 66th minute (that sequence was insane). He also finished with a game-high three interceptions, despite playing in an advanced area, and recorded three shot attempts, two of which caused D.C. fans to hold their breath.
Last but not least, we come to Sporting KC’s man of the hour. Melia saved Marcelo Sarvas’ penalty in the 17th minute on the way to five total saves and a clean sheet.
In doing so, Melia became the first player in Sporting KC history to save a penalty, make at least five saves and post a shutout in two separate regular season matches. He first accomplished the rare feat in last April’s 2-0 road win over the New York Red Bulls.
The only other keeper to stop a PK while finishing with at least five saves and a shutout? That would be Sporting Legend Tony Meola, who saved two spot kicks and made seven total saves in a 0-0 draw at RFK Stadium in August 2002.
"Guys made a lot of huge plays — goal line clearances, tackles, headers," Melia said postgame. "I thought collectively as a group, with the amount of new guys we have, there were a lot of positives. You could see little sparks of how good some of these guys are. I think there are a lot of positives moving forward and going into our first home match.”