The offseason in Major League Soccer is never really that long, but these two months without soccer feel like an eternity to Sporting Kansas City fans eager to see their team back in action. While no games will be televised or streamed online quite yet, action got back underway on a perfect Arizona day at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Sporting KC took on Sporting AZ, a fourth-division team from the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL). The game was broken into three 30-minute segments where the full 11 players on the field were subbed off after each segment. The team indicated this “preseason game” was more of a scrimmage or practice than an actual game, so I tried to make my observations with that in mind.
First, don’t read too much into these. Peter Vermes and the team indicated they are splitting the squad as they prepare for CONCACAF Champions League and the start of the season. So Salloi, Espinoza and Sinovic being with the second team is likely just a way to split talent between the squads more equitably.
Here are the groups, back to front, right to left.
First XI - Tim Melia, Graham Zusi, Andreu Fontas, Matt Besler, Rodney Wallace, Ilie Sanchez, Kelyn Rowe, Felipe Gutierrez, Johnny Russell, Erik Hurtado, Gerso Fernandes
Second XI - Adrian Zendejas, Jaylin Lindsey, Graham Smith, Mo Abualnadi (SKC Academy), Seth Sinovic, Wan Kuzain, Roger Espinoza, Gianluca Busio, Yohan Croizet, Wilson Harris (SPR), Daniel Salloi
Third XI - Eric Dick, Will Little (SPR), Kamar Marriott (1st Round Pick), Franky Martinez (3rd Round Pick), Justin Bilyeu (SPR), Camden Riley (2nd Round Pick), Felipe Hernandez (SPR), Jake Davis (SKC Academy), Tyler Freeman, Wilson Harris (SPR), Daniel Johnson (Trialist)
No one picked up any obvious injuries during the game thankfully, but there were a few players nicked up that couldn’t get into the game. We knew yesterday that Krisztian Nemeth was going to be absent until next week as he’s recovering from surgery. I confirmed with him that it was surgery for a sports hernia and he expects to be going at 100% for next week’s practice. Vermes echoed that sentiment.
Two other injuries were to Ike Opara and fellow center back Botond Barath. We’ve detailed them here, but they are both minor and both are expected back at full strength on Monday for practice.
Rodney Wallace, Kelyn Rowe and Erik Hurtado
All three players got the start with the “first team.” Again, I wouldn’t read much into that as Espinoza, Salloi and Sinovic were with the “second team” but are all obvious starters in the past.
The first player that stood out was Rodney Wallace. He played at left back but it was more like he was a left wing back. Both he and Graham Zusi were getting pretty far forward into the attack. Part of this is due to the level of competition SKC faced. Sporting AZ are a fourth division team and struggled to get any possession to put pressure on Kansas City’s defense. Because of this, Wallace was able to use the skills he learned as a winger and wide midfielder to get into the attack.
Wallace sent several good crosses into the box and ultimately he had the cross into the box that Gerso headed on to Russell who would go on to score the first goal of the game. We all know Wallace is good offensively, the real test will come when someone challenges his defense. We might have to wait until the last preseason game against the Houston Dynamo when their talented attacking core of Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas and Romell Quioto put more pressure on the KC defense.
Going back to those Wallace crosses, quite a few of them were to new midfielder Kelyn Rowe. Within the first minute or so Wallace found Rowe with a cut back ball but Rowe didn’t fully put his boot through the ball and the keeper made the save. A short bit later a long through ball into Gerso went too far but the keeper spilled it and Gerso chipped a pass over the keeper but Rowe, again in the six-yard-box, couldn’t get on the end of it due some miraculous emergency defending. Right after that, Gerso found Rowe with a low crossing ball that he did connect with but his shot was partially deflected for a corner. All of this action was in the six-yard-box. It’ll be interesting to see if Rowe keeps playing this far forward, or if it’s simply because SKC weren’t worried about the quality of their opponents.
As for Hurtado, his speed was more than evident. He consistently raced past defenders and chased down several balls that looked destined to go out of bounds. He had a few half chances in his 30 minutes on the field. He had a volley go just over the bar, a header go just wide and he dinged another shot with his foot off the outside of the post.
Overall, all three players showed flashes of why they are here and there were of course instances where they just weren’t in sync with their new teammates. That’s to be expected with training camp, practices and preseason just getting underway. I specifically remember interviewing a frustrated Johnny Russell in 2018 after his preseason debut and I’d say he fit in just fine when all was said and done.
Center Forward Depth
With Nemeth in street clothes, it was noticeable that SKC didn’t have a lot of center forward depth. A TBT commenter made the point the other day that center forward is a position of need because in nearly every game, the center forward gets subbed off. If the team only has two true center forwards — Nemeth and Hurtado — then an injury could cause real concern. It doesn’t sound like a signing is imminent, but as the team starts playing more complete games, it will be interesting to see who subs on.
Today, the only other center forward was 19-year-old Swope Park Ranger Wilson Harris. He showed flashes of ability in the game but I imagine he has more time in the USL Championship in his future before earning a first team contract.
Sporting Kansas City scored four times on the day, at least one from each of the three groups of players. The first goal came as Gutierrez controlled the ball in the midfield. He would eventually send a through ball to Wallace up the left side. Wallace took it first time across the box and Gerso leaped to win the ball and headed it on to Russell who settled, took a touch, and curled it to the back post and in. 1-0 Sporting KC.
The second goal came from the second group. This grouping struggled a bit more to get going but towards the end of their 30-minute shift Seth Sinovic brought the ball up the left side and cut into the box on a run before cutting the ball back to the top of the box where Croizet took a touch before driving it home. 2-0 Sporting KC.
The last two goals came from the third group, but to be fair to Sporting AZ, their entire team subbed off and another team with different jerseys came on. When speaking with a member of Sporting AZ’s communication staff, he indicated he’d never seen those jerseys before and believed the players that came on where Las Vegas Lights trialists. The Lights play Sporting AZ in the near future as a part of their preseason.
The third goal would come after Tyler Freeman was taken down about five yards outside of the 18-yard-box. Swope Park Ranger left back Justin Bilyeu, formerly of the New York Red Bulls, would take the free kick. He curled it around the wall and right into the net. 3-0 Sporting KC.
The fourth goal came from another Ranger. This time, Felipe Hernandez’s pressure forced a turnover and it all happened so fast he exploded past the backline. He was all alone in with the keeper and a quick fake allowed him to round the keeper and tap it home. 4-0 Sporting KC. And that’s how it would end.
- Johnny Russell (Assisted by: Gerso, Wallace)
- Yohan Croizet (Assisted by: Sinovic)
- Justin Bilyeu (Unassisted)
- Felipe Hernandez (Unassisted)
Best Seat in the House
Before the game, the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex was basically empty. I decided to choose a seat just into the attacking side of the field in the direction it appeared Sporting KC were going to go and it also happened to be close to their bench. What I didn’t know is that Peter Vermes and his former teammate István Urbányi were going to come sit down just a few rows behind me. Great minds think alike I suppose (I kid of course, my soccer knowledge is like that of a newborn compared to those two).
Being right by Vermes allowed me a little insight into how he gives direction during a game. Kerry Zavagnin and Zoran Savic and others led from the bench, but Vermes chimed in frequently from his spot in the stands.
With the first XI, he didn’t have much to say. Outside of occasionally yelling “go” or “step” he kept pretty quiet. At least he wasn’t yelling directions at the players.
With the second XI, he gave more direction. On several occasions he instructed Yohan Croizet to stay wide as he kept creeping towards the middle of the field. When Yohan got wider, he instructed him to come all the way to the line. Almost immediately Espinoza found him with a pass and Vermes yelled, “that’s why you f*#$ing stay wide.” That play didn’t lead to the goal, but Yohan got his goal shortly thereafter.
Also during the first corner kick with the second group, Vermes had to give quite a bit of instruction. He let Graham Smith know to get into the box and gave Kuzain positioning instruction both before and after the kick was taken. Where I sat gave me interesting insight into how particular he is and how the younger/newer players are still learning where to be, while the more tenured players have had it drilled so much it’s instinctive.
After the second group left the field, Vermes left too. At least if he was around I didn’t hear or see him.
The highlight of the third group was probably getting to see 15-year-old Tyler Freeman on the field. For just being a “kid,” he looked very confident. He was loud and giving directions to his teammates, keeping them organized and even calling for the ball. He didn’t get any goals, but he showed flashes of why the team is so high on him. He was the only first team player playing with a bunch of Swope Park Rangers, a trialist and all the unsigned draft picks. That didn’t stop him from looking very comfortable.
After the game the trainers put the third team (and I imagine the other two groups while the game was ongoing) through a pretty intensive workout since they only played 30 minutes. I caught up with an exhausted Freeman and found out this is his first game back after missing four months with a sports hernia injury. He indicated it didn’t require surgery, just “a lot of rehab.” I imagine we’ll see a lot of him with the Rangers this year. It’ll be interesting to see if he plays on the wing, like he did today, or if we see him in other roles like attacking midfield or even as a #9. Vermes indicated previously he can play all four spots in the attack.
As the first game of the preseason ended, it’s a quick reminder that it’s still early. Sporting KC weren’t really tested today. Sporting AZ’s best chances came off of what appeared to be bad calls by the ref (both to my eyes and Vermes who had contempt in his voice at the calls). Both chances were still easily dealt with.
As preseason continues and the competition stiffens, it will be interesting to see how SKC keep coming together. The next two games are against teams of trailists, so I’d expect more of the same. But then they’ll play two games against USL Championship Western Conference champs Phoenix Rising FC, followed by reigning US Open Cup Champions, the Houston Dynamo. Then things get really difficult in a hurry with back-to-back CCL games against Liga MX side Toluca FC.
The Blue Testament will bring you continued preseason coverage as we move towards the start of CCL and the MLS regular season.