Sporting Kansas City is scheduled to return to action Sunday, July 12th against Minnesota United (catch our preview of that game). The league and the team are currently stating that game will take place despite a positive COVID-19 test from Sporting KC. In my personal opinion, that is very much up in the air. Regardless, with a tournament the nature of
COVID Cup MLS is Back, if the team advances (and possibly before that), the depth will be tested.
Let’s take it front to back, but first, let’s talk about players you won’t see on this list.
Not in Orlando
Felipe Gutierrez and Andreu Fontas
About the only thing that happened during the MLS shut down for SKC was the news that Felipe Gutierrez was out seven to nine months. Obviously that’s a big blow since he’s the team MVP from 2019 and he’s been an integral part of the team since arriving. He would have probably started in the midfield and been the primary backup for Ilie Sanchez (if he wasn’t starting in that role). Unfortunately, Gutierrez may just be injury prone. We won’t see him at all in 2020, even if more soccer is played beyond this tournament.
As for Fontas, to say he’s been less important to Kansas City is an understatement. The de facto replacement for Ike Opara has only made 15 appearances (11 starts) in about two years with the team. It’s unclear if it’s Fontas’ Achilles injury, that should have seen him returning in about March of 2020, or if he has a new injury. Regardless, he and Gutierrez didn’t travel to Orlando.
Starter: Alan Pulido
Backups: Khiry Shelton, Erik Hurtado, Tyler Freeman
Pulido has started two games and scored a goal in each. The most expensive player in Sporting KC history is off to a hot start. He’s the surefire starter. His backup in the first two games has been Hurtado, but that’s because Khiry Shelton has been on the field with him at winger. Shelton still seems like the logical backup CF but Hurtado is definitely the most goal dangerous of the two (though they both scored once in 2020) and he can help kill off a game (as can Shelton) with their non-stop pace.
Starter: Johnny Russell
Backups: Shelton, Gerso
I’m listing Russell here because that’s where I believe he belongs but in the first two games it’s been Khiry Shelton starting at RW and Russell looking a bit lost on the LW. Regardless, one of these two should lineup here. If SKC were to go with full backups, then Gerso is probably the starter on the right and Salloi on the left.
Starter: Khiry Shelton
Backups: Gerso Fernandes, Daniel Salloi, Freeman, Pulido
I believe Shelton and Russell are primary starters but if Vermes continues to play Russell out of position on the left, the case could be made that Salloi or Gerso should start on the left and Russell should be a super sub on the right. It feels like a big waste to have Russell on the left, but I have to suspect it has something to do with Shelton’s defense, potentially aiding Zusi when he comes forward from RB.
Overall Forward Depth: So far, the forward depth looks remarkable. The fact that Daniel Salloi, who is the 2018 golden boot winner for SKC, can’t even get on the field, shows good quality. Four of the team’s seven goals have come from forwards (Pulido 2, Shelton & Hurtado 1). Get Russell back on the right and he’ll start scoring too. Plus having Gerso and his scorching pace off the bench could be a game changer.
Starters: Gadi Kinda, Roger Espinoza
Backups: Gianluca Busio, Felipe Hernandez, Cameron Duke, Wan Kuzain
SKC don’t play a traditional #10, so let’s call it two #8s. The loss of Gutierrez is really tough here (even tougher at the #6). Kinda started the season like hot fire bagging two goals in two games. Espinoza added a goal too. The starters seem solid even without Gutierrez. The first guy off the bench is 18-year-old Gianluca Busio.
After that, it’s mostly inexperienced youth. I’m a big Felipe Hernandez guy based on his time with Swope Park in USL (now SKC II). However, Peter Vermes spoke highly of Cam Duke, so he has a chance to get in the game. Kuzain can also play here, but he’s better suited to the defensive midfielder role.
Holding Midfielder (#6)
Starter: Ilie Sanchez
Backups: Kuzain, Besler/Espinoza?
Ilie has started here the first two games of 2020. If Felipe Gutierrez was healthy, I think the case can be made he potentially starts here if he’s not playing more advanced. As far as depth here, it’s thin. Kuzain hasn’t played a game for SKC since 2018, and even then it wasn’t really in this role. In 2019, while with the Swope Park Rangers, Kuzain didn’t play a ton of minutes at defensive midfielder either. In preseason, he stayed with Sporting KC II instead of getting time with the first team and Camden Riley of SKC II was the backup here.
Outside of those two, do you play Besler? Espinoza? They are really needed at their spots. It’s very unclear. Ilie is going to log a lot of minutes in Orlando.
Overall Midfield Depth: There are real concerns here, primarily at the #6 spot. Ilie was good in the first two games, but Houston and Vancouver were hardly tough tests. If he gets hurt it could be a real disaster without Gutierrez. The forward midfield depth is very youthful. It could all work out, but it could also lead to struggles. The midfield is the key to Sporting’s style and a lot hinges on how these guys perform.
Starter: Graham Zusi
Backups: Jaylin Lindsey, Duke
In the offseason I wrote this is Jaylin Lindsey’s job to steal. I still think that is true and this position has to be considered relatively deep. Zusi wasn’t good in 2019 but he started 2020 relatively strong. He has the cardio to play all the games, but Lindsey should get some time if there is any squad rotation whatsoever. Duke can play here too, but barring an injury, he’ll probably be needed in midfield more.
Right Center Back
Starter: Roberto Puncec
Backups: Winston Reid,
Botond Barath*, Graham Smith, Ilie
Back in December, just after Puncec joined the team, I predicted he would start here. He may have had a shaky moment or two, but 2020 is off to a pretty solid start. The depth at CB is fairly questionable. Barath is an experienced defender and Smith is less-so. The biggest question mark is probably the health of Winston Reid. He could be starting if he’s the healthiest, but I don’t anticipate that at this point. Plus he and Besler together wouldn’t make for a very pacey defense.
Left Center Back
Starter: Matt Besler
Barath*, Reid, Smith, Ilie
The Captain is the unquestionable starter here. If Fontas was healthy, as a left-footed CB, he’d be the backup. Unless he’s hurt, Besler will probably play every game. Barath seems like the logical pairing with Reid if he’s healthy, but it’s unclear who would play on the left or right.
*Update 5:29 PM CST: No sooner do I put Barath at 3rd or 4th on the depth chart than does he get sold. Suddenly CB is a position of need.
Starter: Luis Martins
Backups: Amadou Dia, Lindsey
Luis Martins was the man who did the impossible and finally unseeded Seth Sinovic from this spot. So far, he’s been terrific. He’ll almost surely always offer more going forward than in defense, but as long as he provides enough defense, this could be a hell of a signing.
Amadou Dia was signed to be his backup. He’s spent the last several seasons with Phoenix Rising in the USL and has been stable defensively and honestly pretty slick going forward. As a resident of Arizona, I see I lot of Dia, and he played quite well. In an emergency, Jaylin Lindsey can play here as he did in 2018.
Overall Defense Depth: The fullbacks look relatively strong but things are a bit unstable at CB. There are at least three quality players, but Reid’s health and Borath’s form beyond the starters will be in question. At this point though, the defense hasn’t been tested much after just playing the Vancouver Whitecaps and Houston Dynamo, so it’s still fair to mark this part of the team down as a question mark. [*Update: Barath has been sold and CB is now a bit of a depth issue unless Fontas suddenly gets healthy and Reid sticks around beyond 2020.]
Starter: Tim Melia
Backups: Richard Sanchez, John Pulskamp
Obviously Melia is the starter and goalkeepers don’t need to rotate too often. I’ll be interested to see if Pulskamp can overtake Sanchez, but the staff seems high on both.
That is 28 roster spots filled with Eric Dick out on loan to Phoenix Rising. No players will be added for the MLS is Back Tournament, but if the season continues beyond that, at the bare minimum the midfield probably needs someone. The team can free up another spot by putting Gutierrez on the injury list too. The team also has open two international roster spots after Russell and Gutierrez got green cards.
Signing a veteran holding midfielder would be nice insurance, especially if they can play the other midfield spots. I know a guy with a podcast who recently retired and might be a nice, short-term fit.