Don't call Union defender Steven Vitoria a bust just yet.

Yes, the 26-year-old Toronto native missed 14 straight games through the spring and summer of his first season with the team. Yes, his early-season performances drew plenty of critics.

And yes, those critics only got louder when the MLS Players Union disclosed in July that he's earning $400,000 this year - the second-highest salary on the team, more than even now-departed goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi.

But in the last few weeks, Vitoria has started to show why the Union made the effort to bring him to PPL Park after nine years as a pro in Portugal. He has played every minute of the last five games, including three in which the Union didn't allow a goal from open play.

"It's a very tough league - it's very, very physical [and] very quick," Vitoria said of his first season in Major League Soccer. "Adapting to it was a little tough in the beginning, but I feel good."

In late August, Vitoria finally overcame a nagging hamstring injury that accounted for a number of those absences. That gave him badly needed time and reps to fully blend in with his teammates. When Maurice Edu went down with a groin injury, Vitoria was ready to step up.

Vitoria shined in Saturday's 2-1 win at San Jose, in which the Earthquakes' lone goal came from a penalty kick.

"It's been a personal roller coaster this season," he said. "It feels really good to be out there, and a lot better when we win and we're putting good performances together as a group."

Union coach Jim Curtin, a former defender himself, has noticed Vitoria's mental and tactical improvement, as well as Vitoria's ability to organize teammates around him.

"Confidence goes a long way, and I think he's confident right now," Curtin said. "I'm very happy with his game in terms of how aggressive he was [against San Jose] - that was the most physical and aggressive I've seen him in terms of attacking balls."