Written by: Carter Augustine
The countdown to February 29 is on. It may be known as leap day, but all we're focused on is Sporting Kansas City finally beginning their 2020 season with a Western Conference showdown in Vancouver. As we head into the MLS regular season, I thought I'd share some key takeaways from Sporting KC's preseason in Arizona to get us ready for kick-off.
146 Days: That’s how long it will have been since the last time SKC played a regular season match. Many people within and outside of the MLS are saying that is too long. But as far as Sporting are concerned, it was a much different offseason than the previous one when they reached the Western Conference Finals and then had to gear up early for their semifinal run in the Concacaf Champions League. It will be fascinating to watch how they go from their shortest offseason to one of their longest.
Energized: Considering that long offseason, many Sporting KC players got a chance to do something they are rarely able to – take a break. Along with some R&R, the technical staff gave players a lengthy offseason workout program. Many on the team feel as though this is the fittest they’ve been during a preseason, so expect that Sporting pressure to be a hallmark of the SKC style of play once more in 2020.
Aberration: Missing out on the playoffs last season snapped a club-record streak of eight consecutive postseason appearances. In talking with the players they seem determined to prove that was just a one-time blip. Felipe Gutierrez, who statistically had one of the best seasons for a midfielder in club history, said he didn’t care about his personal stats if they weren’t helping the team win. He, Ilie Sanchez and Tim Melia all spoke about how this year is a completely new season with a new roster. Even new signing Alan Pulido spoke at length about how they need to get Sporting back to where they belong.
Polished: Speaking of Pulido, certainly a lot of buzz around training camp was about the new club-record signing. Pulido means “polished” in Spanish, and that’s an adjective the SKC staff would use to describe their new striker. He can score with his right, left, and is good in the air, and can affect the game in different ways. He told me he signed for Sporting because he had watched SKC play and really pictured himself fitting in with the playing style. It may take some time as Peter Vermes told me the team is still adapting to his style of play. Getting him integrated and firing on all cylinders will be key to Sporting KC’s success this season.
Kinda: Let me help you out with the pronunciation – it’s “Keen-duh”. You’ll need it as this guy’s name is sure to be on your tongues throughout the season. A player coming from the top division in Israel is always going to be something of an unknown, but Gadi Kinda wasted no time in displaying his ample talents in the SKC preseason. Arguably the most impressive player throughout the camp, he is going to be a player that gets you on the edge of your seat. He really comes alive in the attack; his quick lateral movement, turns and half-turns, and healthy dose of flair and panache on the ball serve him well in fooling defenders. He is really, really fun to watch.
Midfield: This is a position battle I am excited to see pan out. Along with Kinda there are five capable players for those three midfield positions. Gianluca Busio continues to make strides forward. Felipe Gutierrez won Team MVP last season. Ilie Sanchez won that same award two seasons ago. Roger Espinoza is the heartbeat of the team in the middle of the pitch. They all have different styles of play as well, so different game situations might call for different groups in the midfield. In any case I’m not at all jealous of the coaching staff trying to divvy up those midfield minutes.
Staunch: That’s the type of defending Sporting will be hoping to get back to this season. A rock-solid defense from back to front has been a hallmark of Peter Vermes' teams throughout that playoff streak. He and the team, have said they simply didn’t defend well enough last year. Roberto Puncec stood out in camp as a guy not afraid to get stuck in while also having a delicate passing touch. The club feels optimistic that they may have a steal of a signing with the Croatian center back. But the real coup of the offseason could prove to be the signing of Winston Reid on loan from West Ham United. A behemoth of a center back, he proved to be both a stalwart defender and a threat on set pieces for the London club he often-times captained. Injuries derailed his career a bit, but he and the club feel that he is in a good place with his health and fitness. If that’s true he could be the key to once again having one of the most-feared defenses in all of MLS.
I don’t know about you, but the long offseason has me juiced like never before to get this season going. Can we kick-off in Vancouver already?
Carter Augustine is a Sporting KC broadcaster of Fox Sports Kansas City. Special thanks to Sporting Kansas City for the featured images.