Get well soon, Soni Mustivar

Soni Mustivar is Sporting KC’s most important player, a fact that’s been made all the more obvious by his absence.

If you’re a casual Sporting fan, you’re probably baffled by the team’s recent run of poor play. Then again, if you’re a casual Sporting fan, you probably aren’t reading Reporting KC anyway. If you are reading this, I suspect that you attribute much of Sporting’s current struggles to the absence of Soni Mustivar from the Sporting lineup due to injury.

I’ve waxed poetic about the importance of the d-mid position to Sporting KC before, especially in Sporting’s 4-3-3 system:

Turns out, the defensive midfielder–a position casual soccer fans scarcely notice–is pretty much the most important position on the field. The d-mid especially matters when a team plays a 4-3-3 formation like Sporting does with only a single defensive mid and the left and right backs bombing forward in the attack. [Without a talented defensive midfielder] [t]he first result . . . [is] a porous defense. The second result [is] a toothless attack without a player to launch counter attacks and set our offensive tempo.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that everything Sporting does on the pitch revolves around the defensive midfield position.

Sporting has a boom-and-bust history centered around defensive midfielders. After the re-brand as Sporting KC, the team boomed in 2012 with the addition of the aging but crafty Julio Cesar. A midseason addition during the 2012 season, Uri Rosell, displaced Cesar as the starting defensive midfielder in 2013. The addition of Uri lead to the greatest boom in recent Sporting KC history, culminating in an MLS Cup victory.

The MLS Cup defending Sporting team started 2014 with a vengeance. Sporting played like they were the odds-on favorites to repeat as MLS Cup champs. Rosell anchored the squad and turned in some record setting performances. Alas, Uri played so well that he attracted the kind of interest that can’t be ignored. Uri left for Portugal midway through the 2014 season, leading to a bust that left Sporting barely scraping into the playoffs.

Little did we know, but another boom cycle began on March 21, 2015, when Soni Mustivar made his first appearance for Sporting as a sub against Portland. To be fair, Soni only played a minute in that match (a goalless draw), so we can all be excused for failing to immediately notice how important he would be to Sporting Kansas City.

Soni made his first start for Sporting KC on May 3, 2015, in a home victory over the Chicago Fire. Call the time since then The Soni Mustivar Era. In total, Mustivar has made 24 MLS regular season starts for Sporting. In those 24 matches, Sporting has picked up a total of 46 points out of a possible 72. That’s over 1.9 points per match.

To put that crazy points per match stat into perspective, the New York Redbulls won the Supporter’s shield last year with 1.76 points per match. The last team to finish with more than 1.9 points per  match were the San Jose Earthquakes in 2012. Claiming 1.9 points per match doesn’t make the Supporter’s Shield a sure thing, but that kind of gaudy point total makes a Supporter’s Shield much more likely than not.

With Soni Mustivar in the starting lineup, Sporting has been very, very good.

Alas, then there are the 10 matches that Soni hasn’t started.

Since Soni’s first start on May 3, 2015, there have been 10 matches that he didn’t start (he did appear as a substitute in some of those). Sporting’s performance without Soni in the starting lineup has been . . . not as good. In fact, Sporting without Soni starting has been as bad a team as you will find in MLS.

Since the dawn of the Soni Mustivar era on May 3, 2015, Sporting won 2 of the 10 matches he did not start. Sporting drew 1 of the remaining matches, but they lost 7 of the 10. To add insult to injury, one of those 7 losses was the San Jose Earthquake’s 5-0 dismantling of Sporting in Kansas City last season, which I remember all too well. In those 10 matches, Sporting has collected 0.7 points per match.

How bad is 0.7 points per match? In 2015 the embarrassingly bad Chicago Fire finished the season with 0.88 points per match. Sure, teams have done worse than 0.7 points per match–I’m looking at you, 2013 DC United, with your 0.47 points per match–but that’s small comfort. 0.7 points per match is a dreadful pace. 0.7 points per match will never, ever make the playoffs.

Once again: 1.9 points per match with Soni versus 0.7 points per match without Soni. Let that discrepancy sink in for a moment. With Soni Mustivar in the starting lineup, Sporting Kansas City has been on pace with the best teams in MLS. Without Soni Mustivar in the starting lineup, Sporting KC has been pretty much been on pace with the worst teams in MLS.

Sure, you can argue that Soni Mustivar is NOT the most important player on Sporting’s roster. I admit that we are dealing with small sample sizes here–but those 34 matches are the only data points we have. Yes, for some of those Soni-less matches there were other starters (most notably Ike Opara) missing from Sporting’s lineup–but that applies to many of the matches Mustivar started as well.

In terms of results, Soni Mustivar is the most important player on the Sporting roster, and it isn’t even close. Mustivar has been the difference between an almost historically good Sporting team and a catastrophically bad Sporting team. From a purely subjective point of view, Sporting with Soni usually looks like a team that’s solid in the defense and fluid in the attack, while Sporting without Soni looks like a team clinging onto matches for dear life.

All I can say is, get well soon, Soni Mustivar.