Inside Major League Soccer’s newest stadium, striker Dom Dwyer wore the opposition’s purple and white. He’s always relished this role, an opportunity to silence a home crowd. On this September afternoon in Atlanta, he did so twice, sending a pair of headers across the goal line for Orlando City.
Some 800 miles away, inside a Kansas City, Kan., venue, forward Diego Rubio matched the feat only a few hours later. He also scored twice, two cool, calm finishes for Sporting Kansas City.
The past. And the present.
For three-plus years, Dwyer was the anchor of the Sporting KC offense, climbing to second on the club’s all-time scoring chart. Now, it’s Rubio, a 24-year-old Chilean forward with just 10 MLS starts to his name.
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In Kansas City, this stands as the most evident effect of a July trade that sent Dwyer to Orlando City in exchange for up to $1.6 million in allocation money — a swap of strikers in the starting lineup.
There’s more to it.
“I think it’s been great,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said of his recent offensive play. “I told the guys ... the last four to six games, we’ve had incredible movement in the final third. It’s been tremendous.
“That’s something we’ve worked on a lot, and we’re gonna keep continuing to try to to get better. I think that their attitude around there has been great.”
Attitude. Movement. Those are the immeasurable qualities.
The definable ones suggest Sporting KC isn’t missing the man who led the club in scoring each of the past three seasons. It has won a U.S. Open Cup championship without him and can leapfrog Vancouver into first place in the Western Conference when it hosts the Whitecaps at 8 p.m. Saturday.
The numbers on it: Sporting KC has scored 12 goals in nine MLS games since it traded Dwyer, an average of 1.33 per match. Before the trade, Sporting KC was averaging slightly fewer, at 1.25 goals per match.
After the July move, Sporting KC has collected 14 points in eight league matches, an average of 1.75 points per game. That, too, is an increase from the 1.57 points per match prior to the deal.
The most obvious replacement in the starting lineup has been Rubio. And those statistics tell a similar story. In seven MLS starts in 2017, Rubio has five goals. Dwyer needed 14 league starts for the identical output.
Sporting KC has not been shut out in any match Rubio has started this season, scoring 1.86 goals in those seven starts. It’s the first extended run of playing time offered to Rubio since he joined Sporting KC in the spring of 2016.
“I think every player is looking for consistency in their position, because it’s all about repetition of situations. So I think that’s a huge help for any player,” Vermes said. “And then the other piece is you also get a level of fitness that is associated with playing the position. What happens is eventually you get past thinking about all those things, and now you’re just worried about playing and playing well. I think he’s starting to get to that place.”
There’s a flip side to this.
The player’s side.
After an expected adjustment period in Orlando, Dwyer hasn’t exactly shown many signs of missing his first MLS home, either. He has three goals and four assists since the trade, all of which have come in the last four matches. He has seven shots on goal in that same time frame, finding a groove in a two-striker system that also includes Cyle Larin.
It’s not a deal, at least at the moment, that either side appears to be regretting. Rubio has furthered Sporting KC’s preferred style of play. He offers a contrasting style to the brute strength and tenacity from Dwyer. He is better in possession and owns a 78.4 passing success rate. Dwyer was at 63.9 percent. That was a prime factor in the move.
Rubio has credited that possession with his success but also pointed to an improved chemistry with his teammates, something that only comes with time on the field. Sporting KC has rotated its front line often, with Gerso Fernandes, Daniel Salloi, Latif Blessing and Cristian Lobato all receiving playing time on the wings.
“There are (30) players on the roster, and everyone can play,” Rubio said. “But we always score. We’re winning the last few games. I think that speaks (well) about the team.”