Sporting Kansas City is arriving at the halfway point of the 2018 season, and its playoff, US Open Cup, and Supporter’s Shield hopes are living on much more than a prayer. First in the Western Conference table (although the teams currently in second and third place—FC Dallas and Los Angeles FC—both have a game in hand on Sporting KC) and second in the Supporter’s Shield race behind Atlanta United FC has put SKC in the driver’s seat going into the second half of the campaign. And after an uncharacteristic stumble out of the gate in March and their marquee offseason acquisition going under the knife, the club’s fanbase would surely take a first- and second place spot in the West and the Supporter’s Shield.
While the degree of difficulty of the season’s second half should not be underestimated, Sporting KC has put itself in about as good a position as possible given the hand it has been dealt, especially in terms of injuries and depth chart crises.
So as the fans celebrate a first half of the season that likely exceeded most expectations, a trio of The Blue Testament’s writing staff—editor Chad C. Smith (CS) and staff writers Eric Atcheson (EA) and Araceli Villanueva (AV) took a few minutes to discuss their favorite players and moments of the 2018 season thus far.
EA: These sorts of things often start with the subject of club MVP, and I think that’s a good place to kick things off, because there’s probably some diversity of opinion on this one.
AV: My MVP vote is for Daniel Salloi, who has been crucial for the past couple of games - both regular MLS matches and USOC. He has made 15 starts, five goals and six assists with some goals being the decisive goal in most cases. For example, his game-winner in the 1-0 win over Colorado Rapids on May 5. If he keeps this up, I see him winning Team MVP.
CS: It’s such a group effort with Sporting KC, though. It’s hard to pick just one guy. Espinoza is tied for the team lead in assists with six, which is a career high. But it goes beyond assists. Espinoza is everywhere. He’s constantly hustling for the full 90 minutes despite the fact that he’s 31-years-old now. He has only been subbed off three times and it’s really hard to see how this team succeeds without him and Ilie Sanchez.
EA: I’m of two minds here. I think Chad makes a good point that it’s hard on a team like SKC that plays such system-first soccer year in and year out to pick a lone MVP. And I’ll happily eat my share of crow after worrying last year that Roger Espinoza might have started to decline. But on the other hand, Roger makes $900,000/year, while Daniel Salloi might be the steal of MLS right now on $81,625/year. So I’m going to use Chad’s own excellent work from his best and worst values team salaries piece against him and vote for Salloi.
So, what about newcomer of the year? I think we’ve got some different opinions there, too.
CS: Felipe Gutierrez. I know he has only played in six games up to this point, but boy were they good. Five goals, and he has really shown what a force he’s capable of in MLS. Johnny Russell is a very close second and he’s been very good and important, but Gutierrez was just remarkable. Not to mention Russell has really declined lately in the goal scoring department having not scored since his hat-trick against Vancouver way back on April 20th.
AV: Chad’s second place pick is my first place pick. Johnny has made a name for himself since day one with his quick movements on the ball and recording five goals and five assists, thus far. Including, the stunning the hat-trick he scored in the 6-0 victory over Vancouver Whitecaps FC on April 20.
EA: I wish I could split the difference between Gutierrez and Russell, as I really feel like I could justify a vote for either of them. But I imagine if Felipe hadn't needed surgery that he would win my vote outright. So I’m going to take that hunch to its logical conclusion and agree with Chad on this one.
So that’s two midseason awards out of the way—what are we thinking about best defender?
AV: I like Ike! Opara’s storied career continues after earning MLS Defender of the Year and recently being nominated for an ESPY. He works really hard and it shows on the field. I think Ike should get best defender because he is doing well at anchoring the backline.
CS: I know Ike is the defending MLS Defender of the Year but he has had some off games. Tim Melia has mostly been stout and despite a rough start to the season for the entire Sporting KC defense, they’ve recovered nicely. They are averaging allowing just over a goal a game which is tied with the New York Red Bulls for the best in the league. I’ll give my vote to Tim for that.
EA: I think Ike has tried to acquit himself well in Matt Besler’s absence, but I agree with Chad that the 2017 Ike hasn’t been there a few games this year. I’m also tempted to give the award to Melia as well, both because of my goalkeeper union membership and because of his generally solid play after that March swoon. But I’ll put a cherry on top of Ilie Sanchez’s All Star Game invitation and cast my vote for him. As Chad said, it’s impossible now to imagine this Sporting KC side without Ilie anchoring it, and while Ilie has made several mistakes in defense as well, he has otherwise shielded the backline well while collecting only two yellow cards all regular season (and, remarkably, none since March), and does more to contribute to the attack than almost any other #6 in MLS right now.
That’s it for the player awards, how about best moment awards—best game?
CS: Chicago. After the really disappointing 2-0 home loss to NYCFC to start the season the team needed this. They went on the road, got up early, utterly collapsed before making the unlikely comeback. It’s really a tale of what this team has become in 2018. A team that can and will score goals and can and will make a comeback.
AV: The 4-1 win over Minnesota United FC on June 3 - when Wan Kuzain became the second-youngest player to score a regular season goal in club history. Kuzain is a prime example of SKC’s method by working his way through the Academy team to Swope Park Rangers to moving up to the senior team.
EA: Again, I think we’ve got a three-way split. For me, It’s hard to top a 6-0 romp, even if it comes against a nine-player side. That game against the Vancouver Whitecaps also has Johnny Russell’s hat trick, so I feel like tipping it for best game is also a consolation tip of the hat to Johnny for voting for Felipe for best newcomer.
The vote for best goal, though, I think is a sweep...
AV: Yeah, the best goal goes to Yohan Croziet when he scored the game-winner against FC Dallas in the USOC Round of 16 with a beautiful volley. It was magical.
CS: That goal. Just go watch it. I know it’s cheating since it wasn’t during league play but instead during the US Open Cup but I don’t care.
EA: Yohan’s goal is definitely a moment where words fail as a medium. So...watch it again?
Winner: Croizet versus FC Dallas
Okay, last question: where will SKC finish the season, standings-wise?
CS: I think no worse than second in the West and top five in Supporter’s Shield (how is that for being non-committal?). Is this team capable of winning the West and the SS? Absolutely! They are far better than recent teams without even having Gutierrez or a potential DP #9. They still have a very tough schedule ahead. They have two games against LAFC and Dallas. They have to go on the road against teams that are really good at home in the Red Bulls, Houston, RSL and weirdly Philadelphia. Mix that in with US Open Cup schedule congestion (especially if they keep advancing). Oh, and they still have to prove they won’t collapse late.
AV: Ideally, I would like to see Sporting KC win and finish the Western Conference in first place, since they’ve held that spot for several weeks now. However, realistically, like Chad I see them finishing possibly second in the Western Conference, and second or third for the supporters shield.
EA: I agree that those are fair predictions, but I might even go so far as to say SKC will cough up a playoff bye and slide all the way to third in the Western Conference table because I have gotten so cynically used to their late-season faceplants. So I’ll predict a third place finish in the Western Conference and a fifth place finish in the Supporter’s Shield (so that I’m still in Chad’s range of variability as well).
There you have it—the midseason picks from our trio of staffers. Of course, these picks are meant to be discussed, debated, and dissected. Have your say in the comments section of who—and what moments—merit midseason recognition!
Late entry: Thad Bell was late as usual turning in his picks to Eric. Shame Thad.... Set a better example!
Team MVP: Ilie - It comes down to the guy that means the most to the teams success and that is Ilie. Everything goes through him and nobody can replace him. Yet.
Best Newcomer: Johnny Russell - The Scotsman gets my vote. Felipe Gutierrez made a great case for best newcomer but with only playing a few games he has yet to make a long-term impact. Jaylin Lindsey actually gets my runner-up vote at the moment.
Best Defender: Graham Zusi - I will go with Zusi on this one. Ike has at times been amazing and also had a couple games that were a little scary. Besler has been great at times as well but watching Zusi in the attack and how effective he has been up there while doing a good defensive job has been fun. (So yes I picked best defender because of offensive traits.)
Best Game: This one is tough, the three goal comeback against Houston was great, the win in Atlanta was awesome but the best for me was the 6-0 win over Vancouver. Hat trick for Johnny, Croizet goal, double red card, Russell standing up for teammate all add up to a really fun game.
Best Goal: Too many great shots so I will go with the most unexpected, at least for me. Kuzain scoring in his debut. Or maybe the Yohan goal? Yes, it should be known as THE Yohan goal. No, no, Kuzain... Or maybe...
Western Conference/Supporter’s Shield race: Near the top in both…. Hopefully… fingers crossed….