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2021 Sporting Kansas City preseason excitement: A springboard to prominence?

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As Sporting KC endeavors to be the chief of MLS, is promise predominant? Is hope eternal?

SOCCER: NOV 22 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Round One - San Jose at Sporting KC Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As I sat watching the Kansas City Chiefs play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the “big game” last Sunday evening, I sensed a similarity to Sporting Kansas City. Here were the AFC West (and AFC, of course) Champions – with all their swagger – in a massive game, getting swamped as their weaknesses (perhaps game-specific, injury-catalyzed ones) were exploited again and again. The offensive line bullied. The defense, though stout in moments, overran… consistently. The attacking weapons rendered dull.

Sound somewhat like Sporting KC, circa 2018 and 2020? The Portland Timbers putting three on the hosting regular season Western Conference champions Sporting in the second leg of the Western Conference finals… Minnesota United doing the very same thing (along with shutting out an injury-depleted Sporting attack) to much greater effect in the West semifinal?

But there is where the similarities stop.

“That’s not a fair comparison,” some might say. “Sporting is not the Chiefs.” No, no they are not.

The Chiefs have won five straight Western Conference titles, two straight AFC Championships. They reached the pinnacle of the NFL last season as Super Bowl champions. They have anywhere from three to six elite players on the roster, depending on who you ask. Prominence is predominant here.

In the offseason, the Chiefs will likely look to bolster their lines, maybe add a short yardage power back too. (Perhaps they should have addressed the line depth more before this past season. Hmmmm… another SKC comparison?)

Yes, with the Chiefs’ season in the books, it is time for Kansas City sports fans to focus on the coming Sporting Kansas City 2021 season. I am excited, of course, as all Sporting fans and pundits are. How much reason is there for excitement? To what unchartered levels might this club journey?

So while we whittle away the time until… whenever the MLS preseason begins typing “pew pew” into our iPhones, searching “Friends Joey” or any other Friends character and tapping four times on the image that pops up (try it, right hand corner), or still wondering exactly what those Weekend dancers were wearing on their heads during the halftime show, here are some things to ponder, debate, and poo-poo, if you so choose.

What has the offseason wrought?

The 3-0 shellacking at the feet of Minnesota United spotlighted Sporting’s weaknesses. Okay, put a glaring light on the need for a more defensively able and aggressive midfield and a solid and more athletic center back pairing in front of goalkeeper Tim Melia (among others?).

Technical Director and VP of Player Personnel Brian Bliss and Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes have imported two Frenchmen to strengthen the midfield and backline to support their tactical plans: 29-year-old center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and 25-year-old midfielder Remi Walter.

From highlights, Isimat-Mirin seems in the athletic Ike Opara mold, with the add of clever, more assured passing skills. Could he be the savior that nails down the starting spot at left center back next to assumed starter Roberto Puncec and complete a long-missing effective mix on the backline?

Walter is said to play either the #6 or #8 spot in midfield and from the highlights Sporting KC published, he seems to be a skilled, passionate player who may bring some needed attitude to the pitch and be Roger Espinoza’s heir.

Additionally, Sporting added a trio of academy players in attacker Ozzie Cisneros, midfielder Grayson Barber, and goalkeeper Brooks Thompson, as well as Stage 1 Re-entry pick goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh. Perhaps just as compelling are the latest additions to SKC II: a 19-year-old left back who has drawn interest from big clubs in the past in Travian Sousa and a 23-year-old striker who has scored consistently wherever he has traveled in Ghanaian Ropapa Mensah.

A somewhat impressive (and one trending much younger than the past few Sporting additions) haul, despite some failures here and here and apparently on-goings in the search.

The losses, though, have been substantial, especially in the attack. Gone are backup center forward Erik Hurtado, often starting winger Gerso Fernandes, and, very possibly the possibility of a 2021 comeback by Sporting’s best overall player in midfielder Felipe Gutierrez (out due to injury in 2020). Translated to the team dynamic, that is the loss of a capable, sometimes explosive MLS veteran center forward, the loss of the team’s fastest player who, despite his limitations, could stretch opposing defenses, and a steep loss of attacking skill and defensive verve in the midfield. Adding in Gutierrez’s 2019 stats with 2020s for Hurtado and Gerso, that is the cumulative loss of 20 goals and six assists. Nothing to sneeze at.

Stuck with satisfactory?

Back to the Chiefs. A different level. Check out Kent Swanson’s piece on the pain of the highest of expectations for the Chiefs and their fans at ArrowheadPride.com.

Sporting Kansas City and their fans have enjoyed successes. No doubt. The last two being winning the Western Conference regular season title in 2018 and (COVID-schedule tainted) 2020, those bracketing an early season run to the CONCACAF Champions’ League Semi-final in 2019.

But the results that stand out the most are the failures of the playoff losses that followed the titles, and the abysmal MLS regular season of 2019. Yes, the U.S. Open Cup Championship in 2017 is relevant, but a distant glorious memory of a secondary competition. No MLS Cup glory – the pinnacle to many – has shone in Kansas City since 2013, rewarding the faithful.

Sporting Kansas City has not, in my memory, stated being a “super club” (a term I despise) as a goal. But are the club and its fans to be stuck with the pain of being “satisfactory”? Or “alright”, “good”, or “ducky” as Merriam-Webster puts it. Wait… “ducky”?

That is where I see the 2021 Sporting Kansas City season headed… to alright, a hemorrhage away from mediocre to poor. Pardon me for being a bit cynical, pessimistic, unconvinced, doubtful, full of …, well, anyway. It is how I feel at this point.

But I could be wrong:

If striker Alan Pulido stays healthy and maintains his scoring rate from 2020…

If Felipe Gutierrez re-signs and is near the player he used to be…

If Remi Walter turns the midfield trio into a defensive and attacking juggernaut…

If Gianluca Busio makes the leap from consistent starter to consistent match-impactor…

If Nicolas Isimat-Mirin can eliminate attacks and clean up his teammate’s errors in the back and provide a viable threat in the attacking end on set pieces…

That is a lot of hope on one side of a coin. If the “if-coin” becomes jagged on the edges, more likely to flip, and leads to bleeding…

Alan Pulido could hit the 2nd-year blues as opposing defenses now are alert, leaving only one, Johnny Russell, that can put fear in defenses…

Felipe Gutierrez could… so many things…

Both (or one of) Walter and Isismat-Mirin could find MLS a difficult adjustment, for whatever reason.

Gianluca Busio could not make that leap.

The Hope

Vermes and his staff, now including former Sporting great Benny Feilhaber, will get the best out of each individual, talented professional on the Sporting Kansas City roster. There is hope in that. There is the hope of coming acquisitions that can turn weaknesses into strengths and add another dangerous weapon to the attack. There is hope in the unpredictability of the moment and the possibility of magic within; that is why the games are played.

And there is hope that a tolerable new normal will arise in a world where COVID is a permanent resident, allowing fans to return to Children’s Mercy Park in full, exuberant, joyful voice, even if Sporting Kansas City is not the chief of MLS.