Sporting Kansas City had what was by most counts a good 2020 season, finishing in first place in the Western Conference during the regular season. The reason SKC’s campaign isn’t remembered with more fondness is because of the way the season ended.
An injury-hit SKC suffered a 3-0 Western Conference semifinal loss to Minnesota United, abruptly ending Sporting KC’s season and leaving SKC fans to wonder what might have been if a full-strength squad had been available for the postseason.
Sporting KC went into the offseason ready to make some major roster changes. Long-serving defenders Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic left, as did Gerso Fernandes and Felipe Gutierrez. Peter Vermes worked quickly to add some new key pieces to his squad, while also knowing that some young players would be poised to take on bigger roles in 2021.
How the new faces and blossoming youngsters come together will be key to SKC’s success, but perhaps the biggest key to how far Sporting KC can go will depend on Mexican striker Alan Pulido and his ability to stay healthy. Pulido was limited to just 11 starts in 2020, though he was able to contribute six goals and five assisted in that limited time. Sporting KC was obviously a better team with him in the lineup, and if he can stay healthy this season then SKC could compete for the Supporters’ Shield and an MLS Cup title.
“Last season, in general terms, went well,” Pulido said. “We were first in our conference, we couldn’t reach the final, but as a team I think it was a good year considering all the difficulties we faced in the year.
“For me personally, there was a bad taste left for me because I was injured and missed the last games of the season and couldn’t play in the playoffs, which was very important to me,” Pulido said. “I think this year hopefully I can stay healthy and strong obviously so I can keep scoring goals and we can be in first place again, and obviously try to play in the playoffs, which is very important too.”
“I have a very important year ahead, and thank you to God I’m very good physically, I’m fully recovered 100 percent, and that gives me confidence that this year I can achieve the goals that I wasn’t able to achieve last year.”
The Sporting Kansas City defense was solid in 2020, but could be even better this season if new acquisitions Remi Walter and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin live up to expectations. Walter has been brought in to upgrade the central midfield while Isimat-Mirin is an athletic central defender who should help provided some much-needed pace to a back-line that was exposed by fast attacks in 2020.
For all the changes, Sporting KC still has some key veterans serving as the nucleus, including newly-appointed captain Johnny Russell to standout goalkeeper Tim Melia.
As important as it will be for newcomers like Walter and Isimat-Mirin to deliver, SKC has some youngsters who will be taking on bigger roles in 2021. Gianluca Busio is poised to be Major League Soccer’s next breakout young star, though you could argue he enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2020. Fullback Jaylin Lindsay is ready to take over at right back in place of long-time starter Graham Zusi, and he will look to improve on a 2020 where he made 11 starts.
With a more athletic defense, and a healthy Pulido, Sporting KC should once again compete for the top spot in the West, with a run at the 2021 MLS Cup a real possibility.
Here is a closer look at 2021 Sporting Kansas City:
2021 Sporting Kansas City Season Preview
2020 Finish: 1st in Western Conference (12-6-3, 39 points, lost in Western Conference semifinals.)
Key Additions: Remi Walter, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Grayson Barber, Kendall McIntosh
Key Losses: Felipe Gutierrez, Gerso Fernandes, Matt Besler, Erik Hurtado,
Newcomer to Watch: Nicolas Isimat-Mirin
The Sporting Kansas City defense was one of the stingier ones in the Western Conference, but Vermes will be hoping the arrival of Isimat-Mirin gives SKC one of the best back-lines in MLS. Roberto Puncec was an excellent addition in 2020, but Isimat-Mirin could bring a speed element that helps improve the defensive coverage in front of Tim Melia.
“He’s got good spacial awareness on the field in his position,” Vermes said of Isimat-Mirin. “(He) can cover ground very quickly. Just a very smart player who has some really interesting qualities athletically so he’s a really, really high-level player.”
The former PSV defender joined Sporting KC in late March due to delays in his work permit process, which has him playing catch-up heading into the start of the season.
“The challenge is going to be, since his work permit took forever, us just being patient with building him up week to week,” Vermes said.
Pressure is On: Gianluca Busio
The number 10 jersey has long been identified with a team’s star player, and Busio’s desire to wear the number shows just how much he wants to take on a more important role in Sporting KC’s setup.
“I think the first couple of years I’ve been playing it’s been more me just being the young guy, getting on the field and maybe scoring a goal every once in a while,” Busio said. “With those years of experience already, I really want to step up this year and really put the team on my back, but I think it’s more just really helping the team win. I want to get on the scoresheet a lot, get a lot of goals and get assists. Hopefully I can really step up to that. It’s something I’ve been building towards and I think this year I can really do that a lot more.”
Busio will not only have the pressure to deliver for Sporting KC, but also the mounting expectations that come with being a player being scouted by European clubs who could wind up making him the next young American to make the jump from MLS to Europe next winter.
Sporting Kansas City may have bid farewell to some long-serving regulars this winter, but some key offseason acquisitions have Peter Vermes’ squad poised to once again make a run at first place in the West.
French midfielder Remi Walter should provide a clear upgrade in central midfield, either as a defensive midfielder or box-to-box midfielder. The 25-year-old joins from French club OGC Nice and
“(He has) a ton of quality,” Tim Melia said of Walter. “He wants to be on the ball. He’s that type of player that wants to check underneath and he rolls with a lot of pressure on his back. Very good engine, he’s physical. Excited to see what he’s capable of.”
A Walter-Busio-Gadi Kinda central midfield triangle could develop into one of the league’s most exciting engine rooms, with veterans Roger Espinoza and Ilie Sanchez challenging for minutes and providing invaluable depth.
Defensively, Roberto Puncec returns for his second season in MLS after earning Sporting KC Defender of the Year honors. The Croatian defender enjoyed a strong debut season, and should improve on that as he welcomes a new centerback partner in Isimat-Mirin.
Spanish defender Andreu Fontas will be in the mix for a starting centerback role, but Isimat-Mirin’s speed would make him the ideal partner for Puncec.
The SKC attack will be led by Pulido and Russell, with Khiry Shelton looking to build on an impressive first season with the club. Vermes will need to develop some depth after the departures of Gerso Fernandes and Erik Hurtado, with 21-year-old Wilson Harris a player to watch. Teenage forwards Tyler Freeman and Ozzie Cisneros will also be competing for minutes in the forward line.
Sporting KC could use some more depth in attack, but still boast enough talent from top to bottom to be in the conversation for an MLS Cup run. Especially if Pulido can stay healthy and Isimat-Mirin can fulfill the expectations placed on him by Vermes, who is extremely high on the French centerback.
Sporting Kansas City Roster
Goalkeepers: Kendall McIntosh, Tim Melia, John Pulskamp, Brooks Thompson.
Defenders: Amadou Dia, Andreu Fontas, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Jaylin Lindsey, Luis Martins, Roberto Puncec, Kaveh Rad, Graham Smith, Graham Zusi.
Midfielders: Grayson Barber, Gianluca Busio, Cam Duke, Roger Espinoza, Felipe Hernandez, Gadi Kinda, Ilie Sánchez, Remi Walter.
Forwards: Ozzie Cisneros, Tyler Freeman, Wilson Harris, Alan Pulido, Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi, Khiry Shelton.