Peter Vermes refers to him as a "steady Eddie and safety Sam," and while he may or may not find that exactly charming, it's likely the best description of the most underrated player on the top backline in Major League Soccer.
“That’s what he is,” Vermes says. “He doesn’t get a lot of accolades and all those other things because he does his job and never kind of goes outside the lines. He just does what he needs to do, and you obviously need those guys on your team.”
The he is Seth Sinovic, a Leawood, Kansas, native, and one of the longest-tenured players for Sporting Kansas City. By the accounts of his teammates, he’s one of the most important, too, even if his name isn't as revered in fan and media circles around the league.
“He’s so underrated,” longtime teammate Matt Besler says. “His ability to read the game, that’s one of his best qualities. He’s such a smart player. He can read passes. He has the ability to just know where the ball is going and see different things that are happening at the same time. That allows him to always be in the right position to make plays.”
On Saturday, Sinovic made his 150th regular season start for Sporting KC, a milestone in its own right. It was also his 22nd appearance on the season, more than 2015 and 2016 combined (20), which may carry more weight for the 30-year-old left back as he reflects on what’s been the most adversity he's faced to date.
It was that 2015 season when Sinovic suffered a horrific concussion that sidelined him for more than three months. The symptoms persisted longer than he or the Sporting KC medical staff ever could’ve anticipated. His eyes wouldn’t correctly focus at times, and he often felt nauseous. Don’t get him started on the headaches, either.
When he finally returned in September, the season was all but lost. Sinovic ended up appearing just 11 times, his fewest in a Sporting KC jersey by nine matches.
Things only got worse in 2016. Nagging injuries, as Sinovic describes them, kept him sidelined, while the temporary rise of Jimmy Medranda at left back made breaking into the starting 11 when he was healthy even more difficult. He made just six starts in nine total appearances during the 2016 regular season, logging just north of 500 total minutes played.
“I wasn’t sure if he was ever going to be able to reach his form again, to be honest with you, because he couldn’t (get back on the field),” Vermes recalls. “Like you said, he struggled in 2015 and 2016 for a number of reasons — the concussion and all those different things. We just weren’t sure if he was ever going to get back to his form.”
From 2012-14, Sinovic logged 92 regular-season starts spanning more than 8,000 minutes played. That form helped hoist two trophies, and was good enough to earn a January U.S. Men’s National Team camp call-up in 2014, which included a two-week stint in Brazil as the U.S. prepared for the World Cup that summer.
Despite all that success, with two seasons essentially lost, there was reason to doubt that Sinovic would ever be the same consistent force for his hometown club as he once was.
“There’s probably always doubt when an injury happens, especially an injury like that concussion,” Besler says. “It takes a while to get back to where you were before. I think confidence plays a huge part in that.”
The confidence returned late last season as Sporting KC pushed toward another playoff appearance. Sinovic was finally healthy, and eyeing even bigger things for 2017.
To prepare, Sinovic says he dropped “a few” pounds to help alleviate possible stress on his muscles, and made sure he was stretching before and after practices to help his body ward off the little knocks picked up in training that can derail weeks at a time.
Mentally, he took with him a fresh perspective taken from the frustrations of 2015 and 2016.
“I feel like when you’re younger and getting a lot of minutes you take things for granted,” Sinovic says. “I kind of redeveloped that appreciation for every game — that I’m lucky to be playing in front of a sold out crowd every game, as well as friends and family in my hometown. That’s something I don’t take for granted anymore."
He continues: “As I get older, maybe I don’t have as many of the physical qualities as I did when I was younger, but I feel like I’m a lot smarter player than back then.”
Smarter may very well be an understatement. Sinovic has shined through the first half of the season, which for him means little more than quietly going about his business.
In many respects, he’s an All-Star snub. You could make a case that he’s more important to how Sporting KC flows from attack to defense than any other player for any other team across the league. But he would rather turn that conversation on its head and talk about the backline as a whole, and the league-low 17 goals allowed in 22 matches.
“I’ve always prided myself on my work ethic,” he concludes. “I’m not the flashiest player. I’m not scoring tons of goals or getting tons of assists, but I really focus on the things that I do well and trying to improve on the things that I don’t do as well ... If I’m not getting the ball with my runs, hopefully I’m drawing a little bit of attention to open space for someone else.”
One thing is for certain, he’s drawing the attention (and praise) of his teammates and manager for what he’s done to not just return, but return better than ever, making his mark on the club night in and night out.
“Believe me,” Vermes says, “it doesn’t go unnoticed by us."