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Resetting Expectations for this 2021 Sporting KC Team

A lot of weight will be on the “kids” but it might not all come together right away.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The start of the 2021 Major League Soccer season is just around the corner and with it comes a 26th season for Sporting Kansas City. Before we fully dive in, be sure to check out all the preview content from The Blue Testament as we lead up to the start of the season.

Over the course of the offseason, Sporting KC have gone through a bit of a transition. A little of ‘out with the old and in with the new.’ The team has sent away future Sporting Legend Matt Besler (34) and turned the captain’s armband over to Johnny Russell. Other veterans have also left the club in the form of Felipe Gutierrez (30), Gerso Fernandes (30), Winston Reid (32) and Erik Hurtado (30).

While there have been a couple additions that fit the modus operandi of a Peter Vermes ran team — two free transfers that are European veterans (Remi Walter and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin) — the team has primarily filled empty roster spots with Homegrown signings.

Before 2020 ended the team added striker Wilson Harris (21) and in between seasons they added four more Homegrowns: Grayson Barber (20), Ozzie Cisneros (17), Brooks Thompson (18) and Kaveh Rad (19). That brings the total Homegrown count to 12, including LA Galaxy Homegrown John Pulskamp (19).

The other existing Homegrown players include Gianluca Busio (18), Jaylin Lindsey (21), Tyler Freeman (18), Cameron Duke (20), Felipe Hernandez (22) and the ‘old man’ Daniel Salloi (24) who has been on the roster since 2016 (minus a loan to Hungary).

The team is suddenly young. Very young. And with youth comes promise, but also growing pains.

Busio and Lindsey will likely be day one starters and they’ve taken their lumps over the last couple seasons. They appear ready to grab starting spots and to not let go of them.

But it’s not just them that will be asked to contribute. Hernandez and Duke made semi-regular appearances in 2020 and seem set to step into more minutes in 2021. Hernandez has spent the preseason backing up Ilie Sanchez. Duke played primarily ahead of Hernandez in one of the dual #8 roles but is capable of playing fullback or on the wing as well.

The brand new guys have to contribute as well. Daniel Salloi may be the first winger off the bench (if Kinda or Busio aren’t playing out of position at that spot). Then behind Salloi it’s a trio of Homegrowns in Barber, Cisneros and Freeman. All three are also capable attacking midfielders and have put in extensive minutes in those roles.

The primary backup striker may be Khiry Shelton but Wilson Harris’ preseason leading four goals made a case that he should get that spot.

A Starting XI Full of Homegrowns

For years, Sporting KC Head Coach and Sporting Director Peter Vermes, has talked about fielding a starting lineup full of Homegrowns. He can almost do it if he’s willing to play at GK at center back and another mildly out of position. While that lineup won’t see the field, it’s closer to being a reality than ever before.

As the schedule hits choke points because of MLS play, Leagues Cup and potentially US Open Cup games, records for numbers of Homegrown players on the field will probably continue to be broken. If there are injuries to starters (there are already rumblings of preseason injuries lingering) then it’ll mean even more young players in the lineup.

While the promise of development and young players breaking through sounds good, there will be struggles. Look no further than mistakes by players like Busio, Lindsey, Salloi and Hernandez in recent seasons. They’ve had moments of glory. Moments of real promise. But they’ve also faltered. They’ve had mental lapses.

The growing pains are likely to continue in 2021, but there should also be more moments of glory from a focused Gianluca Busio and hopefully many of his counterparts.

Dallas/Philly/RSL/NYRB but Better?

There are four MLS teams that sign and often play an exceptional number of Homegrowns over the past few seasons: FC Dallas, the Philadelphia Union, Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls. Since 2015, these teams have combined for three of the last six Supporters Shields — often with lineups filled with youth players. They’ve also sold many of their young stars for large figures to clubs around the world.

Sporting KC have yet to join those clubs as sellers in the global market. Busio seems the most likely candidate to leave for a giant fee in the coming months or year. If a few other players join him and others keep funneling up from the SKC Academy (or join as U-22 Initiative players), the sky seems to be the limit. The funds from sales can be reinvested into the academy and into big Designated Player signings. And the cycle repeats.

I’d argue Sporting have signed better DPs than those other teams in recent years. If Pulido and Kinda (likely a DP now) fulfill their promise, it’ll be even more true. But it won’t come without those darn growing pains.

So a final message on the precipice of the 2021 season starting... be patient. It might not always look pretty. To really grow and to show the promise of the last few years of intense academy development, the “kids” must get first team chances. The league is littered with these players making big impacts and it’s time for Kansas City to further join the fray.

I for one, am looking forward to the experiment. Even if it might be a little (or very) painful.