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The Opening Day Starting XI: A TBT Roundtable

A quartet of The Blue Testament’s staffers discuss who might make Sunday’s Starting XI as the 2018 MLS season begins.

MLS: Western Conference Knockout Round-Sporting KC at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After a long preseason, opening weekend for the 2018 MLS season is finally upon us, which means lots of preseason predictions to make, including who starts in that high-profile Opening Day Starting XI for each club. In Sporting Kansas City’s case, for its first competitive match of the year on Sunday afternoon it will be against New York City FC at Children’s Mercy Park.

Getting my colleagues to write my pieces for me (Eric) is a great racket, so, naturally, I turned this into a roundtable discussion. Please enjoy, and, of course, debate our picks in the comments section (that’s what these pieces are made for, right?).

[Editor’s Note: If you had a desire to write for us, it all starts with Fanposts. Write one, tweet it at me (@PlayFor90) and I may clean it up and put it way up high on the home page. If we really like it, maybe you can join us in not getting paid to write about something you are super passionate about. Here are the details.]

Chad Smith (CS): First, I’d like to say this isn’t my ideal lineup, just the lineup I believe Vermes will put out.

Eric Atcheson (EA): That’s, like, the story of our lives here. There has been a lot of turnover, especially up top, for the team, so let’s see how everyone’s starting lineups shake out.

Araceli Villanueva (AV): There is always the possibility of seeing those newcomers - Emiliano Amor, Felipe Gutierrez, Brad Evans, Yohan Croizet, and Johnny Russell - making their debuts. However, I predict we will see them in future matches.

EA: I think that’s fair, certainly for some of them like Amor and Evans. What of that backline, folks?

Robert Rusert (RR): A backline of Zusi-Opara-Besler-Lobato (from right to left) is what Vermes has been consistently running out (sans injury to Zusi). I don’t think Lobato over Sinovic is surprising as Lobato is clearly the stronger technical player who fits with the ability to hold the ball and to move the ball faster and with more penetration. Also, he has now acclimated to SKC’s system with the repetition at one position instead of moving him all over.

CS: Based on the preseason lineups, it would indeed seem to be Lobato at left back. His defensive lapses concern me though and it could cost him the job, but I’m guessing he starts. Sinovic is always steady and Besler had his worst season when Medranda was next to him instead of Seth. Jimmy could also get this job but he missed a ton of preseason and fitness could be an issue (plus I like him as midfield depth).

EA: I think one of the biggest questions going into this season is where Jimmy Medranda plays. He can provide depth at four different positions (left back, left wing, #10, and #8), and honestly, he seems to have a clearer path towards consistent playing time backing up Felipe and Roger in central midfield, as there is already the Lobato/Sinovic tandem at left back and the Russell/Salloi pair at left wing.

CS: I agree with the rest of the defense. My locks to start are Melia, Besler, Opara, Ilie and Zusi.

EA: What about who starts with Ilie in central midfield? Roger and Felipe have to be the obvious candidates, right?

CS: It’s probably Espinoza and Felipe. Even though by Vermes’ own admission, they are both #8s. It seems Croizet should be next to one of them, and maybe that rotation will happen, but it seems Felipe is kind of playing the #10 role. It’s interesting because people often said Benny Feilhaber wasn’t truly playing as a #10 but as basically a slightly more attacking #8 and that’s exactly what Felipe is.

RR: Speaking of Croizet, he doesn’t seem to be match fit, and he has had a nondescript preseason as he battled with Gerso for time.

EA: We likely haven’t seen the best out of Croizet yet for sure. But if he’s up top instead of in midfield, who starts with him?

AV: Khiry Shelton was seen at training this week and he has been listed as possible for Sunday. Hopefully, he can make a full recovery and appear in the starting lineup or at least substituted for Rubio in the second half. It would be exciting to watch him play against his former club.

RR: That question beckons with Shelton over Rubio at center forward. Shelton has shown well much this preseason, but Wednesday was a poor performance. However, Rubio’s finishing still leaves much to be desired.

CS: It’s Shelton... probably. Vermes seems quite high on him. It’s surprising because Rubio really did have good numbers for his limited minutes in 2017, despite slumping late. Neither guy has done much in preseason though. I’d rather Rubio start and the speed and size of Shelton come off the bench for attacking depth.

EA: I guess I’ll be the odd one out here and say that I think Rubio gets the start despite being outshone by Shelton in preseason. This is Rubio’s third campaign with the club, he knows what is expected of him by now, and he is surely motivated to perform, because I imagine if he turns in a subpar season this year, he probably gets cut.

CS: At left wing, my gut tells me it should be Salloi, but they didn’t sign Russell to have him sit. Russell said he prefers the right, but he’s mostly played on the left. He’s probably the guy one Day 1 at least, but he could get tired after playing half a season already. I’d rather see him on the right and Croizet bumped to the bench or midfield but I doubt that happens.

EA: It’s true, they didn’t sign Russell to sit, and Russell left Derby County midway through a successful campaign so he can’t really sit. I think he starts Opening Day.

Here is each TBT staffer’s predicted Starting XI in full:

Araceli Villanueva: Tim Melia, Graham Zusi, Ike Opara, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza, Diego Rubio, Cristian Lobato, Gerso, and Daniel Salloi.

Robert Rusert: Melia, Zusi, Opara, Besler, Lobato, Ilie, Espinoza, Felipe Gutierrez, Yohan Croizet, Khiry Shelton, Johnny Russell

Chad Smith: Melia, Zusi, Opara, Besler, Lobato, Ilie, Espinoza, Felipe, Croizet, Shelton, Johnny Russell

Eric Atcheson: Melia, Zusi, Opara, Besler, Lobato, Ilie, Espinoza, Felipe, Russell, Gerso Fernandes, Diego Rubio

If we add it up it’s clean sweeps for Melia, Zusi, Opara, Besler, Ilie and Espinoza. Felipe and Russell are in every lineup except one. And it’s 50/50 on Croizet/Gerso and Rubio/Shelton. One more day until we know for sure.

Tell us your ideal lineup in the comments (unless it’s super secret).