In no way do I wish to minimize the pain and suffering of Americans. 2020 was a year of loss for millions. However…2020 was also the most MLS of MLS seasons. The league’s 25th season was to be one of celebration. MLS had come a long way since the summer of 1996. Two more teams were entering the league bringing the total to 26, with four more hot on their heels. Team valuations had soared, investors and owners were flocking to jump on board. Billions of dollars were being spent on ever more ambitious stadiums and training grounds. A new CBA was struck, that while not nearly as audacious and game changing as many hoped, was a significant step forward for the players and more changes were promised as new ownership groups at teams like Atlanta United and LAFC pushed the competitive envelope. Real excitement was in the air and it wasn’t just a snazzy MLS 25 logo, it was also owners across the league opening their checkbooks and shattering any previous window’s expenditures by a factor of nearly two. Outside of the big five European leagues and Brazil’s Serie A, no league in the world spent more on incoming talent than MLS in the 19/20 winter transfer window. This wasn’t your soccer mom’s MLS anymore and the retirement league moniker MLS has struggled to shake for years seemed destined to fall by the way side as teams across the league broke transfer records for prime aged names like Pizarro, Zelarayan, Flores, and the great white whale that was Chicharito in LA (oops). 2020 was to be the year that officially ushered in MLS version 3.0.
With all of that swirling around, it felt like Sporting Kansas City was at a crossroads. Following the rebranding of the club and the opening of Children’s Mercy, SKC had been a consistent power in the West, winning MLS Cup in 2013, the US Open Cup in 2012, 2015, and 2017 and qualifying for the CCL 4 times. Children’s Mercy became one of the most intimidating atmospheres anywhere in the Western Hemisphere and the foundation of the team felt rock solid. Sure, SKC did not splash a ton of cash on transfers, preferring to rely on their scouting and analytics to uncover gems they could bring in for little or no transfer fee. However, they did invest heavily in their facilities, their academy and their second team and they were consistently in the upper half to third of the league in first team spending. In 2018 this investment and organizational stability led to one of the finest regular seasons in team history. 62 points, a club record 65 goals, a +25 goal differential, and a first-place finish in the West for the first time since 2012. While the Timbers broke SKC’s heart at Children’s Mercy in stoppage time to deny them a spot in the 2018 MLS Cup, the future felt bright.
Then it all came crashing down in 2019. During the Peter Vermes era, SKC couldn’t always count on scoring a ton of goals, but they could count on playing tough team defense. After moving into Children’s Mercy in 2011, Sporting never finished worse than 6th best in the league in goals allowed. SKC finished top five in GA 6 times and led the league in GA in 2012, 2013 and again in 2017. Much of this could be traced to the consistent excellence of center backs Matt Besler and Ike Opara. However, in a move that would haunt them, Sporting decided to trade Opara, who was coming off one of his most dominant seasons, for a boat load of allocation money. Unfortunately, they chose to use almost none of that money on a CB replacement and instead brought in Botond Barath, who put in an uneven and often disastrous season during his first, and only, MLS season. At the same time, Matt Besler finally began to show his age. All of the blame certainly can’t be put at the feet of the center backs for Sporting’s historically bad defense, but they sure didn’t help. The first sign of real problems in 2019 came in their CCL matchup against Monterrey when they gave up an utterly embarrassing 10 goals over two legs. SKC was absolutely overwhelmed on the counter time and again giving up 5 goals both in Monterrey AND in front of the home crowd at Children’s Mercy. That trend continued throughout the remainder of the MLS regular season as they continuously gave up chances and goals in transition. SKC ended the season on a six-game winless streak during which they gave up a dizzying 20 goals. The end result was a mind boggling 67 goals allowed by a team that missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. In perhaps an even more ominous sign, Sporting’s attendance also dipped. For the first time since the stadium opened, empty seats were not uncommon.
It was against that backdrop that Sporting entered the offseason ahead of the 2020 season. Perhaps for the first time during his tenure, Vermes’ seat was warming up. The lineup was aging with the core of Besler, Zusi and Espinoza all showing signs of decline. The academy had produced at the youth level and in USL, but there was little to show in terms of first team contributions. The team was in need of an overhaul, but there was a real question as to whether ownership would break out the check book to do it.
Sporting’s ownership quickly and resoundingly answered that question with a signing that signaled that they intended to remain as competitive as ever in this new MLS. Enter $9 million man, Alan Pulido. Pulido, a Mexican international striker who had led the Liga MX in scoring during the previous Apertura, was the type of striker teams like the Galaxy, Sounders or Atlanta would be linked to. Not Sporting Kansas City. An international quality 9 in his prime. Are you kidding? He ain’t coming here. Yet it happened and it signaled a foundational shift at the club and an understanding that business as usual would no longer cut it. SKC were putting their money where their mouth was. It also undoubtedly meant that the warm seat that Vermes was sitting on had gotten much hotter. We show you the money, you show us the results. Thus, a striker, even one as good as Pulido, would not be enough. The defense would also have to be shored up and SKC needed to get younger and more athletic. With that in mind, Sporting would round out its squad with a flurry of international signings including center backs Roberto Puncec and Winston Reid, left back Luis Martins and winger Gadi Kinda. Then, in a fortuitous move, the team was able to bring back Khiry Shelton on a free transfer from SC Paderborn in Germany.
The attack, which had produced a respectable 49 goals the previous season, certainly looked improved with Pulido headlining a group that also featured stalwart Johnny Russell, the ever dangerous Gerso, Kinda, Shelton, Salloi and designated player Felipe Gutierrez. The defense remained an open question heading into the season, but there was certainly reason to be optimistic of a bounce back season.
As the season got underway, Sporting did not disappoint. Both Pulido and Kinda would score in their debuts as Sporting kicked off the season with a comprehensive 3-1 road win against an outmatched Vancouver team. They then returned home to Children’s Mercy for their home opener against Tab Ramos and the Houston Dynamo. In front of a sellout crowd they took their Western Conference foes apart. Pulido and Kinda scored yet again, Espinoza and Shelton both added goals and SKC kept an easy clean sheet in route to a four nil victory in front of a boisterous and joyous home crowd. Sporting were atop the West and It all seemed to be coming together.
Then came Covid. The season, like the rest of life in America and across the globe, was put on hold as the nation reckoned with a deadly virus and a surreal environment of confusion and fear set in. Frankly, it felt like a 2020 season was just not gonna happen. However, on June 10th MLS announced that the season would resume with a world cup style midseason tournament it would dub, with a stroke of utter marketing genius: “MLS is Back”. Like the world cup it would feature 3 round robin group games (that would somehow count towards each team’s regular season record) followed by a single elimination format that would lead to a champion winning a title that I guess would mean something. Oh yeah and it was to be played in Covid ravaged Florida, in July, without fans, in a bubble at Disney World during a nationwide movement against police brutality. I mean on the one hand, What? On the other, who cared, at that point I was dipping into Japanese anime on Netflix. MLS is Back baby!
The tournament got off to a decidedly rocky start as both Dallas and Nashville were forced to withdraw from the tournament following positive Covid 19 tests amongst its team and staff. You had to wonder if the league had bitten off more than it could chew. Still, after its hot start Sporting was a popular pick to make a run. However, SKC drew a tough opening match against Minnesota United, a team than had beaten Sporting in two out of three matchups in 2019. It remained a tough matchup in 2020. Sporting’s defensive frailty would rear its ugly head again as Minnesota scored two stoppage time goals to snatch the game from the boys in Sporting Blue. SKC would rebound, however, to take the next two against Colorado and RSL to advance to the knockout stages. They then advanced to the quarters following a surreal, sweat soaked game with Vancouver in which SKC peppered the Whitecaps and rookie homegrown keeper Thomas Hasal with a club record 36 shots, yet failed to score in regulation. However, SKC also held Vancouver scoreless and the game would head to penalties. There, Tim Melia did what Tim Melia does and saved two of Vancouver’s first three penalties and Gianluco Busio buried his to see SKC through. Sporting would go no further, however, as they ran into a buzzsaw in the quarters in the form of a Union team that ruthlessly pressed and countered Sporting in a game that saw them score 3 first half goals in a span of 15 minutes including a third off beautiful turn and perfectly weighted through ball from Brenden Aaronson that lit MLS and USMNT twitter afire. SKC fought back as Pulido continued his strong start to his MLS career and they would threaten throughout the second half, but the Union successfully saw the game out and Kansas City’s MLS is Back bubble adventure was done. Still, with 2 wins out of three in the group stage, SKC retained the top spot in the West.
Sporting would begin the restart in style by getting revenge on Minnestoa United as Gadi Kinda continued his hot start with a goal and SKC would grab a 2-1 win to move 4 points clear in the West. In a sign of things to come the game also featured Jaylin Lindsay’s first appearance of the season, Gianluco Busio was used for the first time as a….checks notes, defensive midfielder in place of Ilie Sanchez, who left the team to deal with family issues. Then things got interesting. Sanchez’s absence would stretch for two calendar months and Sporting was forced to rely heavily on its homegrowns and the rest of their bench over a seven game stretch that saw Pulido, Espinoza, Salloi, Martins, and Reid all pick up injuries. With Gutierrez, Espinoza and Sanchez all out for SKC, Busio got seven straight starts at the 6, Lindsey started three game at left back before shifting back to his more natural right back position and fellow homegrowns Cameron Duke and Felipe Hernandez saw significant playing time in central midfield. During a season in which the youth movement seemed to explode across MLS, SKC, at times, was playing 4 promising homegrowns. #PlayYourKids
The results were mixed as SKC took just 8 points over the seven-game stretch, but they remained in the hunt as Sanchez and Espinoza returned for the final two months of the season. With Espinoza and Sanchez back Busio would move back into an attacking midfield role and Duke and Hernandez would return to their backup roles. However, that stretch of games may prove important to the future of the club. It showed Vermes that he can trust Duke and Hernandez to play a role in the future and it cemented Lindsey as a starter in this league. For Busio the stretch of games at d mid gave him the time and space to play with the ball at his feet and allowed his vision and ability to spray the ball around the pitch with pinpoint long balls to shine through. The game seemed to slow down at times for Gianluca and you could see his confidence grow. It also forced him to improve his defensive awareness, his positioning relative to his teammates, and to increase the intensity and physicality of his game. All of that, in my opinion, made him a better player down the stretch and could prove to be just what he needed to begin to truly climb toward his much-hyped ceiling.
With Sanchez and Espinoza back, SKC rattled off three victories over nine days with Johnny Russell dominating and a new hero emerging in each game, punctuated by an Eric Hertado volley for the ages in the 79th minute against Nashville to cap a 2-1 victory and raise SKC’s record to 9-5-2. A 0-1 loss at Dallas and 2-2 tie at Chicago broke up the momentum, but 4-0 romp at home against Colorado that saw Alan Pulido back in the lineup and back on the scoresheet and Sporting were back atop the Western Conference standings with just two games remaining. SKC then ground out a result in Cincinnati as Espinoza continued his late season rise with a lovely second half goal off a quality pass from Pulido who went the distance for a surging first place Kansas City team. That left just an away matchup with an RSL side in a tailspin following the controversy surrounding owner Dell Hansen’s moronic reaction to the league wide player led protests for social justice and the barrage of stories detailing his years of casual racism that followed. Led by goals from Khiry Shelton and Erik Hurtado, SKC would get a 2-0 victory in snowy Rio Tinto to clinch the Western Conference title. It was Sporting’s fourth first place finish in ten years and it gave them home field advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. The victory proved costly, however, as Alan Pulido picked up and injury in the runup that would see him miss the remainder of the season.
2020 was perhaps Peter Vermes’ best coaching job and a Western Conference Championship was a fitting reward for both him and the players. However, with Gutierrez out the entire season and now Zusi, Besler, and Pulido sidelined it felt a huge ask to take this depleted squad to the MLS Cup, even with home field advantage. That said, Sporting would not go down without a fight. They drew a suddenly dangerous San Jose side in the first round of the expanded playoffs and the game proved to be everything you’d expect from a 1 v 8 MLS playoff matchup in 2020. Busio, at the age of just 18, became the youngest player in MLS history to score a goal and record an assist. Busio’s goal felt like one that would be remembered as his long awaited coming out party. Following a frantic sequence on the other end that saw Chris Melia brilliantly direct a Chris Wondolowski header off the post to keep the score level, Sporting broke the opposite way and Busio ultimately buried a stoppage time goal to give SKC a 3-2 lead that would surely put them through. The ageless wonder that is Chris Wondolowski, the greatest goal scorer in MLS history, would hear none of it. In the NINETY EIGHTH minute Wondo struck on a header that leveled the game and forced penalties. It was there, however, that Chris Melia cemented his place, yet again, as one of the greatest penalty stoppers in MLS history as he saved three consecutive San Jose penalties in spectacular fashion. SKC were through to the Western Conference Semis.
The team would go no further, however, as they ran into a surging Kevin Molino, Emanuel Reynoso and Minnesota United. SKC had three early golden chances to take the lead, but each time they were denied in ever more heartbreaking fashion. Then Minnesota hit Sporting on a counter in the 27th minute punctuated by a beautiful through ball from Reynoso and a composed finish by Molino to put Minnesota United up 1-0 and you could feel the air go out of Children’s Mercy and the team. Reynoso and Molino would strike again just eight minutes later with Molino finishing a beautifully weighted pass from Reynoso with a finish as class as any you’ll see…anywhere in the world. The loons put the nail in the coffin just four minutes later when Reynoso served a beautiful in swinging corner to the head of Bakaye Dibassy. From there, the Loons saw the game out in professional fashion and SKC’s season came to end with a thud.
What does it all mean?
Sure, you never want a season to end with a three nil thrashing by a team who has never beaten you at home, but that shouldn’t remove the shine from a season that, all things considered, was fantastic. As I said earlier, this was one of Peter Vermes’ finest coaching efforts. To guide this team to a first-place season given the year they were coming off, Covid, the injuries, and a lineup that was never the same from game to game was fantastic. There is plenty to feel good about heading into 2021.
Here’s a brief rundown of how the positional units performed in 2020 and what is need to improve the team heading into 2021.
Tim Melia is the starter if he’s healthy and SKC can win with him between the posts and he’s a super sweet penalty kick saver. Now on to the field players.
The Back Four:
While still susceptible at times, the defense vastly improved on its 2019 form. While Sporting allowed a middle of the road 1.36 goals per game over the course of the regular season and playoffs, the team’s underlying stats were far better as it’s xGA of 1.20 per game were fewest in MLS. Tim Melia was at times inconsistent and at times spectacular for SKC and Roberto Puncec was a consistent, if unspectacular, presence at one CB position. It was a revolving door next to him due to both injury and form and as Matt Besler, Winston Reid, Graham Smith and Andreu Fontas all started at times. Graham Zusi and Luis Martins began the season as starters at Right and Left Back respectively. Zusi is no longer the dynamic flank player he once was, but he remains a solid veteran presence who can still spray the ball all over the pitch and deliver a dangerous ball. Martins, on the other hand was shaky to start the season resulting in Vermes inserting homegrown Jaylin Lindsey at LB following MLS is Back. Lindsey proved solid at both left back and his preferred right back and flashed the athleticism and ability to get forward that led to him being capped more than 40 times at various USYNT levels. He became a regular starter down the stretch following Zusi’s season ending foot injury and went the distance in 8 straight games (including the playoffs) to close the season. In total he logged nearly 1,300 MLS minutes and looks poised to lock down that spot for the foreseeable future. With him manning right back down the stretch, it was Amadou Dia taking over at LB. The former Phoenix Rising man proved more than capable and was dangerous down the flank, especially when combining with Gerso. With Sporting moving on from Besler and Reid at center back, the team clearly needs to bolster that spot ahead of the 2021 campaign, however, you have to feel much better about the depth chart at this point versus a year ago today. Lindsey and Dia give you two above average outside backs with very palatable budget hits and Sporting is shedding about $1.4 mln in combined salary by declining their options for Besler and Reid. That should give them plenty of flexibility to further improve the backline.
Roger Espinoza, Felipe Gutierrez and Gerso Fernandes’ futures with Sporting are still up in the air. The team recently indicated that they are still in negotiations with all three, but it is kind of tough to imagine all three midfielders returning. You would love to Espinoza back, even at a diminished role. He has been the engine and heart of this team for years and he showed he still has something in the tank down the stretch. Gerso is a bit of an enigma to me. He can wow you with his athleticism and his willingness to run at opponents, but he just doesn’t finish enough chances. He had just two goals in just over a 1,000 minutes in 2020. Would you be better served moving Kinda out there or does it make more sense to bring in another winger? Vermes is smarter than I am, but I’d lean toward the latter. You’d love to have Gutierrez back. We all saw what he can do in 2019, but the Chilean is now 30 and he’s coming off a season ending knee injury. You just can’t use a DP slot on that guy. That said, if you can get that deal into TAM territory, get it done. Obviously that is a lot of moving pieces, but with Busio, Russell, Kinda, Ilie Sanchez, Duke and Hernandez returning there is a midfield core to be excited about. I wouldn’t mind seeing the club look to sign a ball winning defensive midfielder to compete with Ilie Sanchez, but the offseason, in my opinion is going to hinge on whether Gutierrez returns and whether Busio is sold.
Pulido, Salloi, Shelton, Freeman and Harris all return for Sporting and they are currently in negotiations with Hurtado. Personally, I’d love to see Hurtado back. He gives the team a different look and physical presence and he produced a ridiculous 1.14 xG per 90 last year. That said, he’s now 30 and may be looking for a team where he can find a larger role. Good on him if he can find it, if not, come on back my man! Also loved what I saw from Shelton and at this point you know what you’re going to get from the big man. He’s not spectacular, but I’m guessing Atlanta would’ve loved to have had him last year. This group in 2021, though, is all about Pulido. I saw everything I needed to see from him in 2020 to know he will create chances and put the ball in the back of the net if he stays healthy. If Pulido stays healthy over the course of a 34-game schedule, I think you can pretty much write a 15 goal, 10 assist type campaign in pen. He elevates this team when he’s on the pitch.
The Overall Product:
All in all, I like where this team is at. They’ve got the core of a very good roster intact, with enough budget and roster flexibility to improve the team in a number of areas. Still some questions on who to bring back, but I don’t think they need to sign anyone out of absolute need, which is the position you want to be in. To me, the biggest need is still center back. SKC has a recent history of signing center backs from second tier leagues in Europe with decidedly mixed results. I’d love to see them shift gears and instead go after an MLS veteran to pair with Puncec. Perhaps they could pry a Tim Parker (who’s rumored to be available) from RBNY or Matt Hedges from FC Dallas? Just asking questions. On another note, can we keep that youth movement going? Lindsey and Busio are gonna start, assuming they aren’t sold, but I want more. Is this the year we see Nati Clarke with the senior side? He’s only the highest rank 2023 in the country according to Top Drawer Soccer.
So Long Mr. Sporting:
The Matt Besler era at SKC is done following an injury plagued 2020. It feels wrong as hell for it to end this way for the hometown kid and club legend. Besler deserves to stand at the center of Children’s Mercy and enjoy a five-minute standing ovation. He has meant that much to Kansas City. He’s everything you’d want out of a player. Besler has indicated that he intends to enter free agency, but at some point, I really hope he rejoins the organization in some capacity. Preferably on the coaching side. Who knows if that is what Matt wants, but I hope the door is always open and I hope at some point Besler gets that standing ovation.
It was hard not to smile when the Crew beat Seattle. No shade on the Sounders, it was just the perfect cap to MLS’ 25th season (well other than SKC winning). What better champion that an MLS original who was brought into the league by the Hunt family who kept the team afloat and constructed the league’s first SSS in 1999 at time when MLS was holding on by a thread. Sure it cost less than $30 million to build and doubled as a concert venue, but it provided proof of concept that helped lead to the ever more impressive stadiums we are seeing constructed around the country and was home to some of the greatest USMNT games ever. What better champion than a team with a loyal fanbase who suffered through years, decades of neglect and paltry spending that culminated in an effort to move the team. What better reward for a fanbase that banded together and ignited a league wide movement to #savethecrew that actually… saved the Crew and resulted in a local ownership group being brought on board who would actually invest in the team and got a stadium deal done. What better message to the rest of the league and its owners that if you believe and if you invest you will be rewarded with not just gold, but glory. Cheers Columbus, see you next year. Oh by the way, any chance you’d be interested in parting with Aiden Morris?
By Mike James
Follow Me on Twitter @MLS_Box2Box