The wait is nearly over. A mere 84 days will have passed since Sporting Kansas City were unceremoniously were bounced out of the MLS Cup Playoffs by the Portland Timbers on their home field at Children’s Mercy Park in the MLS Western Conference Finals. The sting of defeat is still lingering for most fans and, more importantly, for the players.
Because three months won’t have even gone by and because Sporting KC have been in preseason camp for well over a month, it’s possible they’ll still be in pretty good form come Thursday. If the 4-1 thrashing they handed the Houston Dynamo in the preseason finale is any indication, this game is happening at the right time. Especially because Toluca FC are coming in winless in their last five going 0-4-1 in Liga MX.
The questions become, does Sporting KC go with their entrenched starters from 2018 or do they mix things up a little bit?
There are a few positions that aren’t in question at all (assuming no injuries). Tim Melia will start in goal. Graham Zusi will be at right back. The center backs will be Matt Besler and Andreu Fontas, the latter of which signed a big deal last summer and is the defacto replacement for recently traded Ike Opara.
Ilie Sanchez will line up at defensive midfielder and in front of him will be Designated Player and the clubs highest paid player in their history, Felipe Gutierrez.
Also not in question is the right wing spot which Johnny Russell has made his own and there is no doubt in my mind that Krisztian Nemeth will be the center forward. Peter Vermes won’t ever tell you who is playing, but he made some bold proclamations about Nemeth potentially being one of the best center forwards in the league.
That leaves just three positions in question for Thursday nights CONCACAF Champions League opener. Left back. Left wing. And the third midfield spot. Let’s break them down.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Seth Sinovic is the entrenched starter, but Vermes is looking to replace him. This offseason saw SKC add Rodney Wallace via free agency. Wallace had played as a wide midfielder or winger predominantly, but as soon as he was signed he was listed as a left back and that is where he played exclusively in the preseason. And he played with the “first team” in every game except the one that was streamed for public consumption. Hmmm.
The argument has been made for each player. It goes something like this. Sinovic is stable. Sinovic is the better defensive option. Sinovic and Besler have played together literally since they were children.
The counter-argument for Wallace is that he’s the best offensive option (though Seth’s offensive game looked on point in preseason). Wallace fits the way Sporting want to play with his runs forward, much like Zusi does on the right side. There is also the case to be made that since Thursday’s game is at home, Toluca may sit in deeper and being offensive would be advantageous. Also, if Toluca do try to hit on the counter, Wallace is faster and can get back.
Personally, having watched Wallace struggle against Phoenix Rising defensively, a team that’s just in the USL Championship, doesn’t instill confidence that he’s ready for the Mexican giants from Toluca.
Every year Sinovic ends up winning back his job and the record of the team with him in the lineup is quite good. Let’s just skip the dance and put Sinovic back there. If the team needs an offensive surge, sub on Wallace, who will likely get a good chunk of minutes at left back at some point this year.
The starter at the end of 2018 was Daniel Salloi. He was also the golden boot winner for Sporting KC in 2018. He started the majority of the preseason games before missing the streamed match against the Dynamo because of injury.
Vermes says he’s fine and available as of last Wednesday. With Toluca likely to sit deeper I like the combination passing of Salloi over the vertical speed of Gerso Fernandes. Gerso looked good against the Dynamo but I simply like him more as a sub with that game stretching speed. Also, Toluca played last weekend so they are potentially coming in a little more tired. Imagine 70 minutes in, that Gerso speed ripping apart their backline?
Assuming Salloi is still healthy and didn’t reaggravate his groin injury, I expect him in the lineup.
In preseason, Kelyn Rowe played every game with the starters except the one that was streamed (another hmmm). It could be a case of Vermes hiding what he has from the camera’s, or maybe it’s that Rowe and Wallace needed time with the first team to build chemistry and Sinovic and Espinoza already have that chemistry.
If Rowe gets the nod, he’s the more offensive option. He made quite a few runs into the box and almost looked like a deeper lying striker at times. He’s definitely more of a number 10 than Espinoza, who is a classic number 8. With the team needing offense, the Rowe start would make sense.
However, how do you bench Roger Espinoza? He has more CONCACAF experience playing for the Honduras National Team than Rowe. From what little I’ve seen of Toluca, they are physical and prone to red cards. Red card Roger knows how to get opponents fired up (and hopefully he’ll show restraint and avoid a red unlike in the final preseason game).
Ultimately, Rowe might make more sense at home, but it’s hard to imagine Espinoza not starting. As the season goes on, I suspect he’ll be rested more, but I have to start him on day one.
Rest of the 18
Adrian Zendejas, Botond Barath, Rodney Wallace, Kelyn Rowe, Erik Hurtado, Yohan Croizet, Gerso Fernandes
That’s a pretty solid bench. You may have heard, but this team is deeper than it’s ever been before. So deep, it was really hard to pick another seven players to round out the bench.
Overall, it’s a very offensive bench. Even the defenders aren’t that defensive. Rowe and Wallace get in because they are on the bubble as starters. Hurtado is the only other center forward on the roster. There is essentially no backup for Zusi or Ilie, but they played all the minutes in league play in 2018, so maybe they don’t need backups (and realistically, Gutierrez can play Ilie’s spot and Sinovic has played RB and Barath may be a defensive option at emergency fullback).
All the kids, Gianluca Busio, Jaylin Lindsey, Wan Kuzain and Tyler Freeman are probably left out, but are just as worthy as others.
The Fan Vote
We asked you to pick your lineup on Monday and here is the voting tally at press time.
Melia, Zusi, Fontas, Besler, Sinovic, Ilie, Gutierrez, Espinoza, Russell, Nemeth, Salloi
Exactly the same as mine (and I promise I didn’t look before writing my predictions). Honestly, the voting wasn’t even close. Melia got all but three GK votes. Wallace had the most votes for a non-starter on defense with 26.7%. Rowe was the same in the midfield with 32.6%. At forward Gerso had 30.4%.
The votes really drop off from there. Barath has 5.2% and Lindsey and Busio have 4.4%. Let’s see if we are all right come Thursday. Be sure to weigh in down below in the comments as to why you made your selections.