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2019 Swope Park Rangers Season Preview

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The fourth season for the USL Championship side starts Saturday.

Expect a lot of youth to make an impact for Swope Park in 2019
Thad Bell

Year Founded: 2015 (though their debut season was 2016)

Affiliation: Sporting Kansas City

2018 Record/Conference Standings: 15-11-8 [53 points] (7th Place in the West, 11th of 33 teams in the entire league)

2018 Playoffs: 4-2 road playoff loss in the conference semi-finals to Phoenix Rising

The Swope Park Rangers are coming off their least successful season. For the first time in their three year history, they didn’t make it all the way to USL Cup. Not a bad reputation to be a team that goes far every year despite the size of their league growing. For more on the 2018 season, check our our 2018 Year in Review.

What’s Changed Since 2018?

Lots has changed for the Swope Park Rangers since the season ended. We’ll get to the roster changes in a moment, but the biggest move is from the Western Conference of the USL Championship to the Eastern Conference. After three seasons in the West, SPR will make their first foray to the East (with St. Louis FC following them) and they’ll play a multitude of teams they have never played before. While the top of the Eastern Conference has always been strong (they’ve won all three USL Cups since SPR joined the league), the bottom of the conference is weaker.

What’s the Same for 2018?

The first thing that is unchanged for the first time in club history is the head coach spot. After losing their coach for two straight years, Paulo Nagamura returns for his second season at the helm.

In terms of players, seven have returned from last season. Back are Felipe Hernandez, Will Little, Camilo Benitez, Wilson Harris, Justin Bilyeu, Rassambek Akhmatov and Ethan Vanacore-Decker.

Key Roster Losses

As is often the case in the USL Championship, roster turnover is massive. The most notable loss is forward Hadji Barry who scored 19 goals in 2018. Instead of earning a first team contract he made a move abroad to Ironi Kiryat Shmona in the Israeli Premier League.

The top three scorers are all gone. Second was Kharlton Belmar (10) but he technically was a Sporting Kansas City loanee. Tyler Blackwood (8) is also gone (all three Killer B’s) as he has returned to the Sacramento Republic.

Also gone are key SKC loanees (who had their contract options declined) Amer Didic and Colton Storm.

Swope also released 11 players at the end of 2018, but the biggest contributors that are gone are left back Parker Maher, goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod, midfielder Chase Minter and jack-of-all-trades (and master of none) Bryam Rebellon. They were “older” contributors who mostly were in the way of kids getting minutes.

Key Roster Additions

It’s really tough to know who will be key. Swope Park only have 18 players listed on their roster and three of them are on Academy Contracts. Most of the additions to SPR are young internationals who we know very little about. It’s almost impossible to know who will play considering some players were signed in 2018 and literally never made an appearance.

Someone likely to play is fullback Mark Segbers who was drafted by the New England Revolution early in the first round and he seems like a good candidate to replace the departed Colton Storm.

The team will definitely be in need of forwards having returned just three from 2018: Harris, Benitez and Vanacore-Decker. All three could start, but none of them played much in 2018. It’s likely Killian Columbie (former PSG Academy product) and William Opoku Mensah (forward from the same league SKC found Latif Blessing in) could step in as well.

One addition we know a little about is SKC second round pick Camden Riley. He is the only player who signed to any SKC team that was picked in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. He can play both center back as well as defensive midfielder and did so throughout SKC preseason. He may start at center back but seems like a good option at defensive mid when Kuzain is with the first team.

Likely SKC Loanees

In 2018, 15 SKC players came down on loan, but it was primarily the kids and players at the bottom of the first team roster, including both backup keepers. Expect Eric Dick and Adrian Zendejas to get loaned out a bunch this year as well.

I’d expect all the “kids” to get lots of time with SPR too as Peter Vermes said as much during preseason. With Jaylin Lindsey and Gianluca Busio playing in Panama on Wednesday, they may not be available but I suspect rookie Tyler Freeman and Wan Kuzain will start and get lots of minutes in 2019. Lindsey and Busio should see their SPR time increase too, assuming injuries don’t force them to sit on the bench for SKC more.

Also likely to be back are 2018 captain Graham Smith. The center back may find himself paired with his new SKC teammate Rwandan Abdul Rwatubyaye who just arrived in KC. Players needing minutes or rehab could be down as well, but with Sporting’s jam packed schedule, that may occur less in the early parts of the season.

Starting XI Prediction

Dick

Segbers - Smith - Riley - Bilyeu

Hernandez - Kuzain - Akhmatov

Vanacore-Decker - Harris - Freeman

Dick is likely to start with Zendejas playing 90 minutes in Panama on Wednesday. They will probably split time again at SPR, barring injury to Tim Melia. On the back line Smith and Bilyeu seem like locks but with so many unknown players the other spots are up in the air. There might not be any other options at CB until Rwatubyaye is ready.

Hernandez has been a midfield starter for years and I expect nothing will change. Kuzain needs to continue to develop in the midfield, but if he doesn’t start Saturday, it could be a sign he’s spelling Ilie Sanchez with SKC on Sunday. Akhmatov ended the year as a starter but I have zero confidence that’s still his job this year.

Out front Freeman has to get on the field and with Harris and Vanacore-Decker returning, they have a leg up on all the new signings.

What to Expect in 2019

More of the same with a heavier dose of youth players.

“If you look at the way the build-out is, I think that this team, being the second team will continue to get younger and younger. There is a lot of talent within the three properties and certainly in the Academy. We will continue to monitor players and give guys chances to see what they have.” - Chris Martinez Swope Park assistant coach

Outside of “old guys” like 24-year-old Vanacore-Decker and 25-year-old Justin Bilyeu, a lot of the new additions to the team are very young. The vast majority of the squad is 20 or younger. That’s a marked difference from prior seasons that included lots of veteran players who ate up lots of minutes. Because of that, SPR will likely struggle a little early in the season. Despite that, the young known products likely to be loaned from SKC are really exciting and talented.

I suspect SPR will do enough to snag one of the low playoff seeds but it won’t be easy. 16 teams get in the playoffs but 36 teams are now in the league (kind of 20 if you count play in games). SPR could miss the playoffs for the first time, but the point is to play the kids. That should happen (almost by default) a lot more in 2019 and should make Swope worth watching to see the future Sporting KC stars.

Stadium in 2019

SPR will return to Children’s Mercy Park despite their low attendance. Due to US Soccer Division 2 rules, the team needs a 5,000 seat stadium (among other requirements). Swope Soccer Village doesn’t currently meet that need, but President and CEO Jake Reid indicated that’s in Sporting’s long-term plans.

2019 USL Schedule

With 18 teams in the East, there is no time to head West in 2019. So gone are MLS rivals Portland Timbers 2 and Seattle Sounders 2 (rebranded to the Tacoma Defiance for this year) and conference powerhouses Orange County SC, Sacramento Republic and Phoenix Rising.

In their places are the “2” teams for the New York Red Bulls, Atlanta United, D.C. United as well as independent clubs Nashville SC, Louisville City, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Indy Eleven and the Charleston Battery. SPR will also play expansion clubs Hartford Athletic, Birmingham Legion, Memphis 901 and Louden United (D.C. United).

To see the full schedule, head over here.

Full 2019 Roster (excluding potential loans)

SPR Roster - 3/8/19

# Name Position DOB Prior Club Joined
# Name Position DOB Prior Club Joined
85 Felipe Hernandez MID 6/8/1998 SKC Academy 1/6/2017
49 Will Little MID 4/9/1998 SKC Academy 1/6/2017
77 Camilo Benitez FWD 8/16/1999 SKC Academy 2/9/2018
96 Wilson Harris FWD 11/28/1999 SKC Academy 7/3/2018
72 Justin Bilyeu DEF 2/3/1994 New York Red Bulls (MLS) 5/7/2018
95 Rassambek Akhmatov MID 5/31/1996 FC Miami City (USL League Two) 8/3/2018
91 Ethan Vanacore-Decker FWD 10/6/1994 North County United (USL League Two) 8/10/2018
98 Ayyoub Allach MID 1/28/1998 Lierse SK (Belgium) 1/4/2019
39 Jerome Ngom Mbekeli MID/DEF 9/30/1998 MFK Vyskov (Czech Republic) 1/4/2019
92 �Alexsander� Jhonatta de Oliveira Andrade MID 9/6/1998 Athletico Paranaense (Brazil) 1/31/2019
43 Mark Segbers DEF 4/18/1996 New England Revolution (MLS) 2/6/2019
53 Killian Colombie FWD 11/2/1995 Iona College (New York) 2/12/2019
44 Camden Riley MID/DEF 8/20/1996 University of the Pacific (Cali) 2/20/2019
79 William Opoku Mensah FWD 1/3/1996 Karela United (Ghana) 3/6/2019
31 Brooks Thompson GK 6/13/2002 SKC Academy 3/7/2019
60 Mo Abualnadi* DEF 2/8/2001 SKC Academy 3/8/2019
64 Jake Davis* MID 1/3/2002 SKC Academy 3/8/2019
80 Sean Karani* FWD 12/14/2000 SKC Academy 3/8/2019
* = Academy Contract