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Sporting Kansas City’s playoff “standards”: Seven key players who must live up

It is one match at a time. MLS Cup 2020 is beckoning. Whose play is critical to regain playoff magic?

Nashville SC v Sporting Kansas City

I had the opening to this article all planned out. Then, I did the research… My optimistic mindset had ignored the truth I knew. The scary truth. I considered what Manager Peter Vermes has been saying, that every match from here on to MLS Cup 2020 is a final. Well, I said to myself, “Sporting Kansas City is pretty darn good in one-off matches.”

Then, I found that from 2011 on, Sporting Kansas City is 1-5 in MLS playoff win-and-move-on (there goes my optimism again), or lose-and-hang your head in shame-go-home knockout matches. Yep. One win in six. Oof! The win was important… the MLS Cup 2013 Final. The losses – it must be said to glean some positive – were partly a result of poor positioning as four were on the road.

Come Sunday, Sporting Kansas City will host San Jose Earthquakes at 3:00pm at Children’s Mercy Park, hoping to repeat the magic of many home (aggregate format) playoff games before. (BTW, Sporting is 20-5 in knockout matches in the US Open Cup – winning 5 in a row en route to the 2012, 2015, and 2017 titles – so there you go.) Three knockout wins will get Kansas City to the grand finale.

Who are the key players? Who must play up to his standards and somewhat beyond to get Sporting Kansas City to their 2nd MLS Cup Final (4th overall when including 2000 and 2004) in the “modern era”?

The Guardians of the Gateway

When Ilie Sanchez steps into passing lanes to circumvent an opponent’s attack and start Sporting’s, he is doing his job as a “defensive midfielder.” As important as his fascinating skill to keep possession under extreme pressure and his ability to play the just right pass to get Kansas City free into the final third as the “holding midfielder” are, with the talented Gianluca Busio and Roger Espinoza and Gadi Kinda in the midfield, Ilie’s most significant contributions are those steps to intercept opponents’ forays. Ilie has been strong in all facets of his game down the stretch. That strength from the Barcelona product is imperative if Kansas City is to get past all comers.

The perceptive reads and the subsequent interceptions, the physical bossing (intimidation?) of attackers all over the field and defenders in the box, and his smart, dynamic use of the offside line make Winston Reid a complete center back, one of the best in MLS. Reid and mate Roberto Puncec are 4-0-1 when partnering for a full match in 2020. Reid is the level of player who makes everyone around him better. He needs to fulfill his own high standards throughout the playoffs.

Then there is this. When “targeting either side of Ilie” was a trending tactic against Kansas City, opposing attacks found gaps to exploit. A strong Reid is a better Ilie and a better Puncec. That is massive for Sporting’s overall defensive makeup.

The Exceptions that will Prove the Rule: Amadou Dia and Jaylin Lindsey

A long trending tactic to bypass the midfield and pull out Sporting’s center backs has been to play in behind Kansas City’s wide backs when they are caught attacking up field. More aggressive pressure when losing possession and better positioning in 2020 have cut down on exposing Sporting’s attacking mindset.

However, the ability of wide backs Amadou Dia and Jaylin Lindsey to handle the more dynamic, upper echelon attacking waves brought by Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and Los Angeles FC are mostly unknown. Not to mention handling the individual abilities of Cristian Espinoza (San Jose), Jordan Morris, Nicholas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz (Seattle, all MLS Best XI selections), Diego Valeri (Portland), and Brian Rodriguez, Diego Rossi, and Carlos Vela (LAFC). Dia and Lindsey just won their jobs this season (Lindsey mostly due to a foot injury to Graham Zusi and Dia somewhat due to taking advantage after an injury to Luis Martins). They are still green, still relatively unproven.

Dia and Lindsey must keep their heads tactically and if not win their individual battles, at least not lose them too often if Sporting is going to make it past the best of the rest in the West. Exposed flanks are just that: exposed. Many-a-battle and many-a-war have been won (and lost) on the flanks. Although Dia and Lindsey have often shown well or shown they are up to the job, hitting their regular season performance will not be enough. Both need to play above their regular season standards to put Kansas City on a higher plane.

However, if Sporting is scoring goals, all the above matters just a little less.

The Stirrers of the Cauldron: Johnny Russell, Alan Pulido, and Gadi Kinda

These three are the John, Paul, and George of Sporting Kansas City (just couldn’t say the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…) because they have each caused a Revolution in Sporting’s attack.

Into opposing defenses, Johnny Russell puts the fear of destruction. Anytime the right winger receives the ball, teams send multiple defenders to him. Sometimes he beats them all, or gets off a strong cross or feed, or he penetrates in combination with a teammate. Sometimes he just picks out a corner of the goal and hits it. Russell makes things happen, and he can finish the play. It is no surprise he was named the top right winger in MLS by former MLS player Steve Zakuani.

All over the attacking half, Alan Pulido is a conduit. He can hold up the ball, allowing others to get into free spaces. He can receive away from goal or in front of it and scheme deadly schemes with runners. He can finish opportunities presented. Indeed, he finished third in MLS with 0.92 goals/assists per game. Sporting Kansas City has never had a #9 this good. But most importantly in the playoffs, Pulido can create a goal out of nothing.

To the midfield, Gadi Kinda (#17) has added a skillful, quick, and clever-on-the-ball attacker who runs at the opposing midfield and backline with a no-fear, free-wheeling confidence. And it is the erratic nature in some of these attacks that lends his play just the right amount of unpredictability. Kinda disrupts organization in the vital up-the-gut battleground.

Sporting Kansas City has three matches to win to make it to MLS Cup 2020. Four goals total in those three games are what these “Thrilling three” need to produce for Kansas City to be there.

On the news front: Although Pulido (MCL sprain) and Kinda (unknown) were on Sporting’s not cleared to play list at the end of the regular season, according to Peter Vermes in Sporting’s press conference Friday, the only players not available this weekend “at the moment” are Felipe Gutierrez, Graham Zusi, and Matt Besler (Editor: that can be misleading though, as questionable designations aren’t on the report).

If Sporting Kansas City is going to make it to MLS Cup 2020, these seven players must perform up to their standards, and, in some cases, play past them. Because these players often did, Sporting claimed the top seed in the Western Conference during the regular season.

It is MLS playoffs time. It has been seven years since MLS Cup featured Sporting Kansas City.

It is time for moments like the sweet contact of a half-volley slammed into the net by an unexpected source. Seth Sinovic. So pure. So right. Such elation:

It is time for moments like a delicate but deliberate (because Ike Opara told him it’s the toughest ball to defend) Benny Feilhaber hip-level chip to a shifty and deft Dom Dwyer:

It is time for some 2020 Sporting Kansas City playoff magic that owns the moment and makes a second season of memories for all of Kansas City, as one.