It’s been about three weeks since Sporting Kansas City were bounced from the MLS is Back tournament by the Philadelphia Union. An ugly 15 minutes of repeated defensive breakdowns were enough to unravel an SKC team that had it’s ups and downs in Orlando. Now MLS has re-returned (you HIMYM fans know the Re-Return) for hopefully the final time in 2020 to set in motion the remaining 18 games of the season.
Starting XI Predictions
Instead of going through every position, one-by-one, when we all likely know most of the starters. Let’s focus on the areas that are more in question. That really only leaves me with two questions. Is Khiry Shelton healthy enough to return to the starting lineup (remember he missed the Philly game) and is Graham Smith still a starting CB?
Is Shelton Healthy?
There has been no news from Sporting KC on that front. It may come in their game preview which will likely be out today or tomorrow and on game day there will be the official injury report. However, some social media sleuthing shows Shelton practicing pretty hard in this video from a week ago and he was in Graham Zusi’s birthday tunnel video yesterday too.
That would seem to indicate he’s healthy. Then again, Andreu Fontas, who hasn’t appeared since August 10th of 2019 (!) was there too. But hey, maybe they are both healthy!
If Shelton is back and he’s fully fit, I can’t see him not starting. He’s been the best winger on the field in 2020. He’s doing all the stuff he was doing in 2018, the last time he was here — off the ball runs, using his physicality, tearing down the field with speed — but he’s actually adding the offensive stats that often define forward play. He already has three goals and an assist in 2020 across the five games that counted (for comparison, he had two goals in 20 games in 2018).
I expect his return to push Gerso/Salloi to the bench and Russell to start opposite him. What will be interesting, as stated over and over, is if Johnny Russell plays in his best spot, on the right. For all the things that went terribly wrong against Philly, Russell on the right was a shining light of what he’s capable of.
Updated 1:53 PM CT: Thad has the confirmation from Peter Vermes that everyone is healthy outside of Gutierrez and Fontas.
Vermes: Everyone (other than Gutierrez), Fontas has rejoined training and should be ready soon, everyone else healthy #sportingkc— Thad (@TheBackpost) August 19, 2020
Who Starts at CB?
Graham Smith has supplanted Matt Besler for the last three games of the MLS is Back tourney. The team went 1-1-1 (with the draw being a PK shootout win). Over three games, the only three goals allowed were in the Philadelphia game. And two out of three of those came on set piece counter attacks. It’s not clear Smith should be held responsible for those as he’s up on the attack heading balls over the net in most cases (I kid, but at some point you have to put a shot on target).
The case can be made that if Besler was on the field, he may be further back (though I believe he tends to go into the box too, even though he isn’t as good in the air offensively).
Set pieces aren’t the only story. With Besler in at CB the team has given up five goals. But Besler is hardly solely to blame.
- Goal 1: Season opener in Vancouver. The ball comes up the right side of the defense where Zusi is beat and the pass leads to a tap in.
- Goals 2/3: MLS is Back opener. SKC are down a man (Tim Melia) and they come off a set piece and a cross to the right side of the defense. Of all the people to blame on the third goal, Besler is probably the least responsible defender.
- Goal 4: This one is a bit on Besler. The Colorado Rapids score early and Besler is late to step to an open Kellyn Acosta.
- Goal 5: Zusi is the furthest player up the field, an exhausted Espinoza is covering for him and gets beat. Puncec then gets beat. Besler is on an island and a wide open Jonathan Lewis scores.
Besler isn’t blameless but the case can be made Zusi made more errors than him and his starting spot is seemingly never in jeopardy (seriously, when is Jaylin Lindsey getting a start?). I think Besler’s calmness on the ball, defensive positioning and better passing (especially on long passes) should get him another start. It’ll be interesting to see if three weeks back in KC have been enough for Matt to break back through.
The dark horses at CB have to be a healthy Andreu Fontas (if he is healthy, though he’s likely not fully fit) and the yet unused Winston Reid. Roberto Puncec has started all the games, but he’s made as many mistakes (though lots of big plays too) as anyone else. He probably stays on simply for athleticism, but who knows at this point. The sample size is so small.
The rest of the starters, probably look the same. I’ll keep naively putting Russell on the right, even though I suspect Shelton will be there.
Rest of the 23: R. Sanchez, Amadou Dia, Jaylin Lindsey, Graham Smith, Winston Reid, Gianluca Busio, Felipe Hernandez, Wan Kuzain, Daniel Salloi, Erik Hurtado, Gerso Fernandes, Cameron Duke
Not Dressed: Tyler Freeman, John Pulskamp and Andreu Fontas (though I’m less sure on this)
Obviously, this depends on form and the flow of the game. As always, expect no defensive subs baring injury or disastrous form. The players who must play for me are Gerso (first winger off the bench), Gianluca Busio (sure his Philly game wasn’t great, but young players will make mistakes and need more shots) and Felipe Hernandez (Roger can’t play all the minutes). Remember, Sporting play again on Tuesday against the Houston Dynamo, no need to run the “starters” into the ground (full schedule).
Put those three on in the order that the game calls for but Roger should probably be the first midfielder off and the winger sub can come as the game needs life on offense or just when someone needs a rest.
As for the last two subs, that’s really up in the air (though they should definitely be used — six games in 24 days, don’t forget). If SKC are some how trouncing Minnesota United (or getting trounced), let Alan Pulido get a rest and get on Erik Hurtado. If Andreu Fontas is healthy, maybe get him on the field for fitness minutes, especially if the game is in hand. Otherwise the subs could come for rest (Amadou Dia for Felipe Martins, Jaylin Lindsey for Graham Zusi) or to let Daniel Salloi finally find his magic out wide.
You guys voted for a return of the ‘starters’ as well. And it wasn’t particularly close: Melia (100%), Zusi (65.5%), Puncec (90.8%), Besler (79.3%), Martins (79.3%), Ilie (95.4%), Espinoza (88.5%), Kinda (96.6%), Russell (93.1%), Pulido (97.7%), Shelton (90.8%).
The lowest total went to Zusi not Besler (Peter Vermes, do you see what we are all seeing). Jaylin Lindsey (31%) picked up the difference mostly. Besler blew out Graham Smith (25.3%).
Somehow 2.3% of the people don’t have Pulido at CF, though he has 1.1% vote on the wing. So really only one person doesn’t want him on the field at all (?) and the other non-Pulido voters want Erik Hurtado (1.1%) or Shelton (2.3%) to start at CF. That math doesn’t quite add up so maybe someone wants a 4-4-2 or a different formation, which seems unlikely.
Here are the others above 10% of the vote: Amadou Dia (19.5%), Gerso (16.1%), Winston Reid (11.5%) and Felipe Hernandez (10.3%). For the record, poor Daniel Salloi got zero votes. Ouch. Having zero loans to SKC II is really hurting his chances to get on the field and rediscover his form.