After a bit of a hiccup in the offseason plans of many teams in the form of a new CBA being negotiated and an ongoing pandemic, it’s safe to say many MLS rosters are not yet complete. Sporting Kansas City have had more than their fair share of departures and rumors that have left some room for improvement.
Despite the incoming and outgoing movement, Sporting KC have filled 27 of their 30 roster spots (though they can free up a spot by loaning someone to SKC II for the season). They have one open international spot (but teams trade for more as needed all the time) and the likely potential to open a Designated Player spot (the team lists Johnny Russell and Alan Pulido now, but it seems Gadi Kinda will be a DP and Russell may have the potential to be bought down).
So let’s take a look, position by position, where the roster currently stands. Obviously there are some fairly large unknowns in terms of who will lineup where (these jobs have yet to be won, preseason hasn’t even started). And obviously, a lot of this is opinion, so join in the comments with your thoughts. I’ll list a “starter” and then backups in the order I see them.
Center Forward (#9)
Starter: Alan Pulido
Backups: Khiry Shelton, Wilson Harris
Obviously Pulido will be the starter, if he’s healthy. Hopefully by missing the entirety of the playoffs, that is the case. Erik Hurtado is gone, but Shelton was the backup for most of 2020 anyways. It will be interesting to see how much Homegrown Wilson Harris sees the field after being quite good at the USL Championship level. Shelton will probably be needed on the wings, so Harris might get more of a chance than usual if Pulido gets any rest.
Starter: Johnny Russell
Backups: Shelton, Zusi?, Barber? Cisnersos? Duke?
Another no-brainer is starting Johnny Russell at RW. Last year, Shelton stole some of these minutes but Russell seemed to claim the job back. It’s always possible Shelton starts here and Russell on the left, but that mostly didn’t work in 2020 (especially not for Russell). Both Russell and Shelton seem better on the right and obviously during any game, the wingers flip periodically. I’d pencil in Russell here.
Beyond these two, it gets kind of thin. Zusi can and did play some forward again in 2020, but at 34, his elite attacking days are over. After that, it’s all “kids.” There are the left wingers (Salloi and Freeman) and then there are guys who I’m not sure have a spot yet in new Homegrown signings Grayson Barber and Ozzie Cisneros. Cisneros appears to be a forward, but I’ve seen speculation he’s best at an advanced midfield role. Barber was an attacking mid in college, but Sporting don’t really play with a classic #10. Cam Duke can also play forward, so that’s something to keep an eye on as I suspect he’ll earn some more playing time this season.
Starter: Khiry Shelton
Backups: Gianluca Busio, Daniel Salloi, Tyler Freeman, Cisneros/Barber/Duke?
Right now, it’s Khiry. I may not want it that way, but it seem Vermes sees him as a starter. I hold out hope he was hurt for the latter half of 2020 because he wasn’t who he was in the first half of the season. If that guy shows up, I’d say all is well.
One possibility I go back to is Gianluca Busio is the starter here. He had a couple games on the LW where Pulido was at CF and it looked like something that could really work. I’ve held on to that and it’ll be interesting to see if that plays out in the regular season. Busio definitely needs to be on the field and forward is much thinner than the midfield.
If there is one position where a new DP or even high level Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) signing could help, it’s LW, especially with Gerso gone.
As for the other backups. Salloi is on the final year of his deal and I except he may spend time in USL on loan to regain his confidence, if SKC can even afford to spare him with a thin/young bench. Freeman has been on the MLS roster for a couple seasons but has never played (though he is the starting LW with SKC II now). See RW for Cisneros/Barber.
Dual Box-to-Box Mids (#8s)
Starters: Gadi Kinda, Gianluca Busio
Backups: Roger Espinoza, Felipe Hernandez, Cameron Duke, Remi Walter, Barber/Cisneros
I won’t be surprised if the day one starters still include Espinoza. Especially if Busio plays LW. Kinda is a written in pen starter as he’s likely to eat up a DP slot in 2021 and his debut season was pretty fantastic. I worry that Busio and Kinda aren’t physical enough to be in there together and someone like Roger or Hernandez may be needed next to them (though Kinda does foul and pick up lots of cards). Over the last few seasons Peter Vermes has played a more attacking midfielder on the left (Gutierrez, Kinda, Busio) and the more box-to-box bruiser on the right (usually Espinoza and sometimes Hernandez). That could be the plan again.
Behind the first four, it will be interesting. Theoretically Duke will get more time with SKC II and the first team. Walter is said to be able to play here (where he could be a starter frankly) but I’ll slot him in below.
Defensive Midfielder (#6)
Starter: Remi Walter
Backups: Ilie Sanchez, Busio
My first “bold” prediction. PV said he brought Walter in to play the #6 role. It could all be smoke and mirrors and he could play the #8, but Ilie has declined some over the past couple seasons (or much of the league has just moved ahead). It won’t surprise me if Ilie starts opening day but you suddenly have two players making near $1 million that play the same role. Something has to give. Maybe what gives is Walter pushing forward next to Kinda, then Busio has to be on the field, right? I’m more comfortable in this scenario with Busio starting on the wing and Khiry being the first forward off the bench. So many dominos still to fall.
As for depth beyond Walter and Ilie, Busio can play here if needed (and frankly, it may be his best position) but he’s needed elsewhere in the attack.
Starter: Jaylin Lindsey
Backup: Graham Zusi
When the season was set to start in late February or early March, it was very likely Zusi wouldn’t be healthy in time to compete for the job. However, the start is now April 17th. Zusi should be healthy and his “four to five months” timeline to recover from his surgery will have passed. Despite that, it’s time for a changing of the guard. Lindsey and Zusi played fairly similar in 2020 to my eye. Lindsey will be 21 when the season starts, Zusi is 34. Zusi is also in a contract year. All that said, Zusi will probably start and play most of the minutes. Lindsey has to earn the job and hopefully he will. His opening could be if Zusi isn’t fully fit and the door is still open to claim the starting job.
Starter: Amadou Dia
Backup: Luis Martins
Admittedly, I’m a bit skewed by the performances late in the season. This job is probably a toss up going into preseason. Martins essentially lost his job when he was injured and Dia stepped in. Then Dia played great... until the playoffs when he faltered. The defense in 2020, while much improved over 2019, still has a long way to go. Hopefully the competition will make both players better as they both enter 2021 on expiring contracts. The team hold 2022 options on both players, but if Martins isn’t the starter, you have to think he’s gone after the year.
Keep a watchful eye on Sporting KC II signing, Travian Sousa. He drew attention from some top European clubs before issues getting into England sent him back to the states. The 19-year-old could be the real deal and I’d love to see him explode and make it to the first team.
Starters: Andreu Fontas, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin
Backups: Roberto Puncec, Graham Smith, Ilie
I predicted early in the 2020 offseason that Puncec would come in and start next to Matt Besler. That played out to be true. He started and played more than any CB on the team. He’ll probably be a starter again, but let’s throw out a different idea. Fontas was unhealthy coming into 2020 and found his fitness (or something closer to it) by the end of the year. He’s the team’s highest paid defender and he is a very talented passer. Ike Opara isn’t coming back, but maybe Isimat-Mirin is the closest thing? Maybe this is just holding onto there being a “need” for a ball control, passing CB, paired with a more athletic CB. It’s probably really dumb not picking Puncec, but I though he left a lot to be desired in 2020.
As for Graham Smith, I don’t know what to think. I thought he played well when he was in there in 2020, but he can’t sniff the field. Ilie is a depth option until the team signs a fifth CB (if this in the plans at all). If Walter takes his job, I’ll be interested to see if PV sees Ilie as the ball-control CB he’s missing. I doubt it, but you never know.
Starter: Tim Melia
Backups: John Pulskamp, Brooks Thompson, Kendall McIntosh
Obviously Melia is still the starter. Even if he ever loses this job, he’ll probably stay on the roster another decade just to sub in and stop penalty kicks in a shoot out (I’m only partially kidding). As for the backups, McIntosh was probably signed to get a look at him and to have him warm the bench on the game day rosters. Pulskamp and Thompson are known quantities for the SKC staff and should spend most of the year with SKC II getting valuable game time. If Melia were to get hurt though, I’d pencil in Pulskamp as being next in line to start. One of these keepers, probably Thompson, is a prime candidate for a full year loan to SKC II to free up a roster spot.
I personally feel like a lot more is up in the air in terms of starters than in most seasons. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Let us know what you would change in the comments below.