A rough ending to the 2021 regular season and playoffs will stick in the memory of Sporting Kansas City fans, as the club squandered an opportunity to win the Western Conference at the end of the regular season. Then, Bobby Wood and Real Salt Lake stung Sporting KC by ending its season with a late playoff goal at Children’s Mercy Park.
That set up an offseason of retooling the roster for Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes. Sporting KC is led by veteran players such as Graham Zusi and Johnny Russell who continue to perform at high levels, but the club has also added a number of young pieces who could push Sporting KC further than some expect.
The team’s preseason began with terrible news in even worse timing, with DP forward Alan Pulido missing likely the whole 2022 season by undergoing surgery on his left knee.
Pulido has struggled to stay healthy throughout his time in Kansas City, but his loss will still be felt. He managed to play nearly 1,500 minutes in 2021, scoring eight goals. When Pulido did play, he commanded the attack, dropped into the midfield often and jumpstarted Sporting KC’s offense. The worst part is that Pulido is a DP who can’t be replaced as such, and the club already has three DPs.
Sporting KC’s back line enters this season with many changes. Andreu Fontas and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin will be first-choice players at centerback, but that partnership saw few minutes last year because of Isimat-Mirin’s injury struggles. Instead, Ilie Sanchez, typically a central midfielder, played most of the season at centerback with mixed results.
Sanchez had his option declined after the season, so Vermes added centerback Robert Voloder to the team this offseason. Voloder, a German youth international, is only 20 years old but has already played more than 4,000 professional minutes. Whether he’s a starting candidate remains to be seen, but he provides crucial depth if nothing else.
Vermes will enjoy stability in central midfield, where Remi Walter, Roger Espinoza and Gadi Kinda are established players. The newest additions are Jose Mauri, who played eight matches last season, and Uri Rosell, a free agent signing who Vermes first brought to MLS back in 2012.
Johnny Russell finished the 2021 season on one of the hottest streaks an MLS player has ever had. Russell scored 12 goals in the last 13 matches of the regular season and finished 2021 with 15 goals and eight assists. Hungarian forward Daniel Salloi is also looking to repeat another outstanding year, finishing 2021 with 16 goals and eight assists.
It has now been nine years since Sporting KC last won MLS Cup, and five seasons since the last trophy, which was the 2017 US Open Cup. The club has stayed consistently competitive, missing the playoffs only once in the past decade, but it has been a while now since the club has celebrated a trophy.
Keeping a strong veteran presence in the locker room has been Vermes’ way of preventing complacency among his players, especially having been at the helm of the club for such a long time. Vermes, who has been coach of Sporting KC since 2009, is one of the longest-tenured managers in world soccer.
“You’ve got to have players that can actually speak to the younger players and give them advice and bring them along with mentorship,” Vermes said. “I feel that we have some really good ones in Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, Johnny Russell can be really good at that— and Tim Melia. That buy-in is priceless; it’s just priceless.”
2022 Sporting KC Season Preview
2021 finish: 3rd in Western Conference (17-7-10, 58 points, lost to Real Salt Lake in Western Conference Semifinals)
Key Acquisitions: Ben Sweat, Uri Rosell, Robert Voloder, Marinos Tzionis, Logan Ndenbe
Key Losses: Jaylin Lindsey, Gianluca Busio, Ilie Sanchez, Luis Martins
Newcomer to Watch: Logan Ndenbe
Ndenbe enters the fold for Sporting KC as a U22 initiative player, and he figures to start at left back. The club let go of previous left-back starter Luis Martins, who lacked the athleticism and attacking ability that Vermes typically likes from a fullback. Melia said in preseason he was impressed with Ndenbe’s speed and said the Belgian likes to “bomb up and down the field.”
The Pressure Is On: Johnny Russell
Russell was one of the hottest players in the league in the second half of 2021. He finished the season with 15 goals and eight assists. The 32-year-old earned a contract extension until 2023 with his outstanding year, but in 2022 he may be counted on to do it all over again. The loss of Alan Pulido puts the offense squarely on Russell’s shoulders, with some help from Daniel Salloi. Some pressure is on Salloi to show last season’s 16-goal haul can be replicated.
Sporting KC should continue as a Western Conference contender with its strong core of key contributors still in place. However, the team’s ceiling may be heavily limited by the loss of Alan Pulido to a season-ending injury.
Some relief has come with the signing of a new striker in Nikola Vujnovic, who Sporting KC signed on loan from Serbian club Vozdovac. The club will hope Vujnovic can stand in well for Pulido at center forward.
“We’re fortunate in that we’ve done a good job with our salary cap to be able to afford another player, whereas a lot of times you’re not able to because you’ve already invested all your money on players already in your roster,” Vermes said.
It also remains to be seen how the team will adjust now that Gianluca Busio is no longer in midfield. Busio’s departure in a club-record sale to Venezia FC in the Italian Serie A drastically changed Vermes’ tactics late in the season, which coincided with a devastating dip in form.
Jose Mauri, a midseason signing in 2021, will be counted on in defensive midfield. Mauri is not the passer or dribbler that Busio was, but his defensive strength could help Sporting KC prevent getting burned on the counterattack like it did many times in 2021. Mauri made eight starts last season, scoring one goal and notching an 88.4% passing clip. Uri Rosell, who helped the club win the 2013 MLS Cup, is back as a free agent signing to aid as a holding midfielder.
“(Rosell) has a really good sense in winning the ball from that position,” Vermes said. “He has competitiveness. His eagerness to compete and win, I’d put up against anyone. One is experience, for sure, because he’s been gone for quite a few years. He’s more savvy, he’s stronger, He knows what he can and can’t do. He’s a really good teammate.”
Vermes has also spoken highly of Homegrown midfielder Cam Duke, a 21-year-old center mid who played in 16 games last year.
Struggles on the back line held Sporting KC back in many ways in 2021. Injuries played a part, with Isimat-Mirin making only 11 starts. Sporting KC lacked depth and it showed, as the club gave up 40 goals. One of the most productive attacks in the league saved Sporting KC on many occasions. So, Vermes has made some clear moves to improve defensively.
Sporting KC will count on some new signings such as new left back Ndenbe to stay solid defensively and add to the attack. It will also need another standout year from 35-year-old right back Graham Zusi. If the team can stay healthy at centerback and Mauri solidifies things in defensive midfield, Vermes may have solved the issues that cropped up all too often in 2021. Perhaps Sporting KC will also see quality minutes from Kayden Pierre, a Homegrown singing who could split minutes with Zusi at right back.
“I think we’ve definitely given ourselves a lot more variety at the left back position, something that we didn’t have last year,” Vermes said. “I think with adding Ben Sweat and Logan Ndenbe, those two players are really coming along and really helping us.”
There’s still the issue of Pulido’s loss, however. Some of Sporting KC’s best performances of last season came with Pulido connecting the midfield to attack. A lot hinges on Russell’s continuing form and Salloi’s ability to pick up where he left off last season.
Sporting Kansas City Roster
GOALKEEPERS: Tim Melia, John Pulskamp, Kendall McIntosh
DEFENDERS: Graham Zusi, Kayden Pierre, Logan Ndenbe, Robert Voloder, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Kortne Ford, Andreu Fontas, Kaveh Rad, Brett St. Martin, Ben Sweat.
MIDFIELDERS: Roger Espinoza, Jose Mauri, Remi Walter, Uri Rosell, Felipe Hernandez, Jake Davis, Gadi Kinda, Ozzie Cisneros, Cameron Duke.
FORWARDS: Khiry Shelton, Alan Pulido, Daniel Salloi, Marinos Tzionis, Johnny Russell, Nikola Vujnovic.