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,