Before the midfield comes goalkeepers and defense. Don’t miss those breakdowns.
Sporting Kansas City has always been (and still is) about the sum of the parts being greater than the individuals. Thus it is that for Sporting Kansas City, more than most sides, the midfield trio of Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza, and Felipe Gutierrez is the team’s lifeblood, the team’s engine, the literal center of all things this team now does tactically. Without the combined vision, awareness, tirelessness, and confidence (and some flair) on the ball of this midfield, nothing Sporting KC does would work.
With the new addition of Designated Player Chilean Felipe Gutierrez from Spain’s Real Betis late in the preseason, this midfield has taken another leap forward in its all-around abilities and importance as the 27-year-old has fit in like a glove with incumbents Ilie Sanchez (27) and Roger Espinoza (31).
Breaking down the trio
With a strong understanding of the system, a visionary awareness, and a calm demeanor, Ilie moves the ball almost effortlessly from the backs to width or to his more attacking midfield partners. However, don’t sell the Spaniard short, for he is capable of being a deep lying playmaker (and a playmaker near the box). Ilie is not infallible, but he’s just so dang smooth and in control. Defensively, he reads the play very well and is rarely out of position.
Espinoza, even at age 31, is a wonder. His tirelessness and ability to hassle and break up opposing attacking rushes before or as they begin, is still hard to beat. He does so many little things that he still goes underappreciated by many. And it seems with Felipe in the midfield mix, he has been rejuvenated on the attacking end as the two have connected well in the preseason. No, the Honduran is not much in the box to finish things, but he is an attacking flea that necessarily attracts attention, opening space for those who are supposed to finish off attacks.
Though not an out-and-out attacking midfielder, yet, Felipe is like Ilie in his ability to spray the ball around confidently. But, he is cleverer in short, quick combinations and adds a very skillful, youthful daring attacking edge to the midfield, making the difficult ball or touch look easy, and enterprising enough to try clever balls over or through the defense. If he develops a slightly stronger attacking aggressiveness (to match his defensive tenaciousness) and a bigger, more brash confidence and is not derailed by the physical play of MLS, he can become a fine attacking midfielder and will be one of the finds of the MLS offseason like Ilie was last year.
Worries in the midfield lie in the backups. The best backups in two of the cases seem to be the two other starting midfielders, yet there are options, with the youngest ones showing well in preseason but not nearly MLS ready.
With the capable, yet erratic Soni Mustivar let go at the end of 2017, the backups for Ilie include recent free agent signing Brad Evans who has substantial MLS experience, but Felipe may be the best option. After those, candidates include James Musa (though his status seems unclear at the moment) and 19-year-old Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal (who goes by Kuzain). Musa has 90 minutes of MLS experience and Kuzain is a 2nd team, Swope Park Rangers, rostered player.
For Espinoza, Felipe is by far the best option as this is his usual position. Next is everyman Jimmy Medranda, who, in my opinion, is weak in reading play. Lastly, 19-year-old Felipe Hernandez sits at SPR.
Any switch of Felipe to the box-to-box role of Espinoza or injury to Felipe would necessitate the influx of a forward (and maybe a formation change) in the Chilean’s current attacking midfield spot. Wingers Johnny Russell and designated player Yohan Croizet could move in that spot, as could center forward Khiry Shelton. Fifteen-year-old Gianluca Busio awaits the keys in the future.
Worst-case scenario? If Felipe gets injured for an extended time, it will be a letdown for sure, but adjustments could cover. If it is Espinoza, again a for-sure letdown, but a decent fill-in situation could be found. It’s Ilie. If he goes down, the whole season could crumble. An exaggeration? Maybe. Probably not.
A final, but critical, word…
What lends more weight to the critical role of this midfield is something not often talked about. It is even seen in Felipe now. Though center back Matt Besler wears the captain’s armband, on the field it is Espinoza and Ilie who often lead. It’s Ilie taking the calm yet forceful stance with referees; it’s Espinoza ramping that up a notch and getting on to teammates who aren’t carrying their weight. And it’s the respect they have earned from their teammates that makes them looked to for a steady hand and direction in critical moments.
Not much more can be said about the crucial role the starting midfielders play in Sporting Kansas City’s success. Kudos to the SKC front office and Manager Peter Vermes and his staff for forming such a solid triumvirate. Perhaps the top one in MLS?