There has been a lot of time for speculation, a very long offseason, lots of roster moves and a handful of preseason games. It’s now time to predict who starts (and who makes the bench) for Sporting Kansas City. First, the injuries.
OUT - Andreu Fontas (knee surgery)
QUESTIONABLE - Felipe Gutierrez (bone bruise) [PV said he’s day-to-day in his press conference this week]
*This story will be updated with the official injury report on Friday.
Starting XI Predictions
Let’s take it position by position since it’s the first lineup of the year.
Tim Melia. Are we done? Timmy actually has been injured for part of preseason but it’s hard to see Richard Sanchez or the newly signed Homegrown John Pulskamp stealing his job in Week 1. Results matter though. We’ll revisit this in the coming weeks.
It’s going to be Graham Zusi. Besides a game he sat out against FC Cincinnati in the preseason, he was with the “starters” every other time. Jaylin Lindsey deserves a look here, but he won’t get it in Week 1.
Right Center Back
All preseason it’s been new signing Roberto Puncec. I can’t imagine Peter Vermes will mess with his central defender pairing yet. And if all goes well, it could be hard for anyone else to break in with Puncec and Besler. Looming on the bench could be new signing Winston Reid who is on loan from West Ham United in the Premier League.
Left Center Back
Matt Besler. The Captain. Botond Barath has been the backup at this spot all preseason. The Reid signing might have relegated him to fourth on the depth chart. But this is Besler’s job until further notice.
Luis Martins is the guy that finally allowed the team to move on from Seth Sinovic. In 2019, he was pushed into the lineup and showed glimpses of what he was capable of. In the preseason of 2020, he showed a lot more. Going forward he is fantastic. His improvements on defense are TBD. Amadou Dia will be nipping at Martins’ heels in practice trying to break into the lineup like he did when he was a first round draft pick back in 2015.
In the 4-3-3 that PV prefers, someone has to play the deep lying midfielder. The shield in front of the back line. The distributor out of the back. The #6. For the last several seasons that’s been Ilie Sanchez. 2019 was rough for Ilie (and most everyone). However, if Felipe Gutierrez was fully healthy, he could be playing this spot and relegating Ilie to backup here (and backup CB?). But Guti isn’t fully healthy as far as we know.
Right Center Midfielder
This is Roger Espinoza’s spot. There could be some shuffling as this midfield has five starting quality players (Gianluca Busio, Gadi Kinda, Sanchez and Gutierrez). Roger will start on day one and here is to hoping he isn’t ran into the ground and there is some rotation here.
Left Center Midfielder
Possibly the most exciting addition to this team is Israeli midfielder Gadi Kinda. He was explosive in preseason. Extremely tricky on the ball. And just slightly out of sync with the players around him. When he finds his rhythm (if he finds it) he’s going to be fun to watch. Because Gutierrez is hurt, this is probably his spot based on preseason.
If Guti isn’t playing deep, there could be a four man rotation at the advanced midfield spots with Busio, Guti, Espionza and Kinda. But I really think it’ll be mostly Busio, Espinoza and Kinda at the top of the inverted triangle (dual #8s) and Gutierrez deep with Ilie spelling him. If we want to look too closely at preseason though, Ilie was always the #6 even when Gutierrez played. So I could be very wrong.
I’m torn. The right answer is Johnny Russell. But he played nearly zero minutes here with the “starters” in preseason (though the minutes he played against Real Salt Lake were electric with the “ones”). Instead, Khiry Shelton played here a lot. I’m not opposed to Shelton starting, just not on the right. I’ll say that Russell plays here, though my gut tells me that Shelton is going to start.
I’ll say it’s Khiry Shelton here, but don’t be surprised if Vermes flips he and Russell. Daniel Salloi got a lot of minutes here in preseason but you can’t put Russell on the bench and I feel Vermes wants Shelton on the field. Gerso Fernandes and Salloi are good options off the bench. But Gerso literally played zero minutes here with the “starters” in preseason. Gerso will be a good super sub option and he should create plenty of chances for Pulido with his speed (though Khiry is dang fast too).
Rest of the 18
There are seven bench spots. Richard Sanchez will likely be the backup keeper most of the year with Pulskamp down with SKC II. But it could be a chance to let the kid travel with the team before Sporting KC II’s season starts. Then again, Pulskamp could head to preseason (which we’ll know today) for SKC II’s last two games.
You need a backup fullback and backup center back at least. Week one I’ll take Jaylin Lindsey since he can play both fullback spots, though he could find himself with the second team when their season opens to get minutes. At CB Winston Reid has a chance but he’ll fight it out with Barath. I’m guessing it’s Reid’s job, but he did just join the team, so it’s a bit gray.
The above mentioned Salloi and Gerso should be offensive options off the bench. Erik Hurtado could be on the bench, but with Salloi and Shelton capable of playing CF (and Pulido unlikely to rest this early) I’d leave Hurtado out of the 18.
Gianluca Busio has to be the first midfield sub (unless Gutierrez is healthy and shuffles everything around).
For the final bench spot I’ll say it’s Felipe Gutierrez if he’s not healthy enough to start. He could come on and get minutes (probably in-lieu-of Busio) and work back to fitness. Or if the game is in hand, maybe he stays on the bench. If he can’t go maybe Cameron Duke sneaks into the lineup since he can play maybe every spot but GK and CB. Then again, it’ll probably just be Barath.
Rest of the 18: R. Sanchez, Reid, Lindsey, Busio, Salloi, Gerso, Gutierrez
Fan Starting XI
Fan voting was hot in Week 1. Just two differences from my lineup. You guys have Gutierrez over Ilie (probably because you voted before I put up that injury story — sorry!) and you have Gerso over Shelton. I could be wrong on that, but I think preseason lineups matter more than Vermes would like us to believe. You may have noticed I literally never asked him about lineups because I know the answer I’ll be given.
Here are the players with the highest vote percentages that aren’t starters: Ilie (62%), Shelton (29.7%), Busio (26.4%), Salloi (17.2%), Lindsey (17.2%), Reid (12.9%) and Barath (11.9%).
No one else was north of 10%. Richard Sanchez got eight votes but Melia still had the most votes of any player (97.7%). Besler was 2nd with 97.4%. Pulido only had 96% which tells me fans are already thinking he’s a bust because of preseason (or it could be 3.6% voted for him on the wing). I should stay off the social media comments.
The fan votes tends to tighten up once Vermes puts out his first lineup. We’ll check for that next week.