The United Soccer League (USL) season is half over for Sporting Kansas City’s second division team, the Swope Park Rangers. With all the soccer that’s available to be consumed, it’s mildly excusable if you haven’t found time to watch the “B Team.” That said, it’s the home of potential future stars and a place for talent already on the Sporting KC roster to develop.
So with the season at its midpoint it seems like a good time to make some observations and hand out some midseason awards. If nothing, it’ll give you regular SPR watchers a place to argue in the comments over why our analysis is wrong.
Get Caught Up
Record: 9-4-4 (31 points)
Swope Park are in third place in the west in a tie with Reno 1868. They sit behind Phoenix Rising (35 points in one extra game) and the Real Monarchs (37 points). The only Eastern Conference Team with a better record is FC Cincinnati (34 points) [this was written before any weekend games]. The West is a really tight race as only two points separate third and sixth place.
Scoring Leaders: Kharlton Belmar (9), Hadji Barry (6), Colton Storm, Rodrigo Saravia, Tyler Blackwood (2)
Assist Leaders: Hadji Barry (4), Colton Storm (3), Kharlton Belmar, Rodrigo Saravia, Felipe Hernandez (2)
Overall the Rangers are in really good shape sitting in third place. They started really strong when all the SKC players were consistently playing but their play has wavered a bit before suddenly turning up again. They added a lot of mid-tier depth that appear unlikely to earn first team contracts and are probably too old to stick with SPR more than a year or two. Chase Minter has recently won a few USL Team of the Week awards after struggling early in the season.
The Rangers are currently hot winning four of their last five despite some uninspiring play on the field at times. Before that stretch they had gone 2-2-4. They have a tough stretch approaching with the next three games against teams currently above the red line. The good thing is five of their next eight games are at home where they are quite good (5-0-1) despite switching home fields early in the season.
SPR: A Place for the Kids... Sort of
Before the 2018 season started it looked like the Swope Park Rangers would be a great place to get minutes for many of the kids on Sporting KC’s roster. At the beginning of the season Gianluca Busio was only 15-years-old and Jaylin Lindsey was 17-years-old. They’ve both since had birthdays but their minutes with SPR have been limited. Busio has 332 minutes across 6 appearances (five starts) and Lindsey has 270 minutes across three appearances (all starts). Part of the reason is injuries on the first team have kept Lindsey there with an additional 285 minutes. Busio has dealt with injuries (hamstring and eye) as well as spending time with the SKC Academy still.
While those two Homegrown signings haven’t gotten a lot of time, other “kids” have gotten on the field. Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal has 855 minutes across 10 starts and earned a first team contract where he already has 217 minutes over five appearances (two starts).
Other SKC Academy players are getting on the field too. Forward Wilson Harris has 318 minutes in seven appearances (four starts) and earned a full SPR contract. Midfielder Roman Knox has 309 minutes, six appearances and three starts. Then there have been a spattering of minutes (though not enough in my opinion) for other Academy players like Sean Karani and Sebastian Cruz as well as Camilo Benitez who got a full contract. There have also been lots of bench appearances for the Rad brothers, Jahon and Kaveh who have yet to get on the field.
Since the season started a few things have shuffled around. There are obviously lots of loans up and down but there are a couple subtractions and an addition.
The man who was wearing the captain’s armband, Rodrigo Saravia, was transferred to Comunicaciones FC in Guatamala. The midfielder was a little inconsistent but had contributed two goals and two assists and much needed midfield depth.
Also out is the aforementioned Kuzain. The holding midfielder is still getting loaned to Swope Park on occasion but when the health of the first team improves he should see a lot more minutes.
One of the only additions is forward Wilson Harris. He was already playing on an Academy contract but has decided to forgo going to the University of Louisville and will join Swope Park full time. We haven’t seen enough of him yet to know if that’s a good idea. He has represented the United States U-20 National Team in the past and one would assume he has potential. I appreciate kids following their dreams but it’s unclear how much money USL contracts pay and giving up a free education is nothing to scoff at.
The other addition is Matt Lewis, the Sporting KC Homegrown who was cut by SKC and then immediately re-signed by SPR. The center back never appeared for Sporting KC and had barely gotten on the field for SPR. Though a recent spat of injuries has given him more of a chance to prove himself. He joined a 10-man SPR side in holding off the terrible Seattle Sounders 2 this past Thursday to keep a clean sheet.
MVP: Kharlton Belmar (FWD)
Sure he only has nine appearances of a possible 17 due to spending so much time on the bench with SKC, but he’s scored nine goals. All those goals are what’s keeping him with the first team (and injuries) and he probably shouldn’t spend much time with SPR the rest of the way but if he keeps sitting on the bench with Sporting, loan him out. He’s exciting to watch.
Offensive Player of the Half-Year: Hadji Barry (FWD)
It’s really Belmar, but I can’t give him both awards. Barry has been a bit inconsistent and his first touch often lets him down but man is he fast. His speed creates problems for defenders and game in and game out he’s hustling and creating for SPR. He’ll probably never get signed to Sporting KC, but he’s been a good contributor to the second team this year.
Defender of the Half-Year: Amer Didic (CB)
In past years Didic has been a slam dunk even winning Defender of the Year for all of the USL. This year, he’s been less consistent. He and Graham Smith still have the most time together but it’s been a revolving door at center back with appearances by Didic, Smith, Lewis, Emiliano Amor, Brad Evans and Dakota Barnathan. If Smith keeps playing as good as he has as of late, he could easily steal this award of Didic.
Newcomer of the Half-Year: Graham Smith (CB)
Speaking of Smith, despite a rocky start, he looks like he could be a return to the good drafting past that Sporting were known for. He was the second of two first round MLS SuperDraft picks (the pick acquired in the Lawrence Olum trade with the Portland Timbers). He got a first team appearance and while he played it pretty safe, he looks like a potential future depth piece at the very least for a safer CB like Matt Besler. Until then he should bring stability to SPRs backline.
SKC Academy Contract of the Half-Year: Roman Knox (MID)
It’s really between Knox and Harris. Neither have played a ton but forwards are expected to score or assist and we haven’t seen much from Harris. He did get his first pro goal in garbage time of a 4-1 loss to Fresno FC. So Knox wins by default. He’s looked pretty good for the most part but has made the errors you’d expect and 18-year-old to make. He is committed to the University of North Carolina in the fall so we may not see much more of him unless he signs a contract with SPR and forgos college like Harris (for now).
Goalkeeper of the Half-Year: None of the Above
Four keepers have played this year already. SKC loanees Adrian Zendejas and the other first round pick this year, Eric Dick, as well as SPR keepers Darrin MacLeod and Christian Herrera. AZ and Dick have six starts, four for MacLeod and one disastrous start for Herrera that was only saved by terrible play from the Las Vegas Lights.
Zendejas has been inconsistent and has the worst save percentage (partially from poor backline play). Dick has been the best at making saves but his distribution with his feet is horrific and ever pass feels like it could create a counter for the other team. MacLeod has probably been the best, but the same size is small.
Second Half Outlook
The season could really go anywhere from here. For two straight season SPR have finished fourth in the conference but then due to some playoff upsets coasted on home games all the way to the USL Cup Finals. It seems unlikely that under their third different coach (SKC veteran Paulo Nagamura) they could get that lucky again.
Barring a complete collapse, they look like a playoff team again but some SKC loanees would definitely help that cause and get valuable minutes for the bottom third of the roster (as well as those recovering from injuries — it won’t happen but how weird would it be if Felipe Gutierrez gets a rehab start in the USL).
Without SKC loanees SPR really lack depth and are just a few injuries away from having no one to play if the Academy kids go to college or get busy playing for their respective Academy teams. A few signings would be nice to sure things up (Nansel Selbol is suddenly available again). Regardless, there are players like Felipe Hernandez who will likely to earn first team contracts soon and are worth your time to watch.