Sporting Kansas City are set to open their 2021 campaign against just one of three Eastern Conference foes that they’ll meet this season in the New York Red Bulls. Let’s get right to the injury updates.
QUESTIONABLE - None
PROBABLE - Alan Pulido
Vermes: Pulido is available this weekend but not 90 minute fit #SportingKC— Thad (@TheBackpost) April 15, 2021
Melia out with chest injury on the game notes, Dia (Hamstring), McIntosh (eye), Thompson (back) and Zusi (foot). Thompson and Zusi are both recovering from injuries last year. #SportingKC— Thad (@TheBackpost) April 16, 2021
Starting XI Predictions
Since it’s the first game of the season, we sort of need to take it position by position. This will build on the preliminary depth chart we put out, but with the twists of a preseason worth of information and unfortunately injuries to deal with. Let’s go back to front.
The answer would be Tim Melia, but he’s hurt. And he’s set to be out for a little while at least. “Tim is actually progressing very quickly so I would say over the next few weeks he has a chance to be back as well,” started Vermes. “It’s not a long term thing, it’s a short term thing.”
Because of injuries to all three other keepers, the starter is John Pulskamp. Don’t think that this is the fourth of four choices though, Pulskamp is the backup keeper. He took the job from the since jettisoned Richard Sanchez in 2020. We can’t know for certain that Pulskamp would have gotten the job if everyone was healthy outside of Melia, but I believe he’s the next man up. Even if he’s just 19.
Another process of elimination position. Amadou Dia is injured, so Luis Martins is the only healthy left back on the roster. I thought Dia played good down the stretch in 2020 but fell apart in the playoffs. In preseason, before Dia was hurt, Martins was “starting.” He’d probably be starting regardless, let’s see if he can hold the job this year.
The first real position of debate. There are five CBs on the roster with the recent addition of Kaveh Rad. He’s probably fourth on the depth chart since Graham Smith consistently came on in preseason after an unsigned draft pick. The next three up are where the debate is. I’m probably putting too much on preseason, but not once did Roberto Puncec “start.” Instead it was the aforementioned (and at that time unsigned) Kaveh Rad and Andreu Fontas consistently running out first. Then when French CB Nicolas Isimat-Mirin joined the team, he took over for Rad.
Fontas has dealt with several injuries over the last few years and only recently has fully become healthy. He was signed to replace Matt Besler, who is suddenly gone for the first time in a decade. I’m guessing it’s Fontas and Isimat-Mirin in the opening day roster. Puncec could be at RCB if Isi isn’t fit enough, but he was brought in to start. It’s a pairing of an athletic, destroyer type (Isi) with a possession, precise passer (Fonti). Isi and Fonti... sounds like a buddy cop movie.
Another ‘process of elimination’ spot. Zusi is still hurt, so it’s Jaylin Lindsey’s spot. I’ve long been on the Lindsey bandwagon and his ceiling is so much higher than the 34-year-old Zusi’s (and I’m not sure their floors are much different at this point). Here is to hoping he shows he deserves to keep this spot, even when Graham is healthy.
Going into the offseason it seemed this position was up for grabs. The first big signing was Remi Walter and Peter Vermes immediately said they signed him to be a #6. Until he changed his mind. With Walter penciling in at an advanced midfield spot (whoops, spoiler!) that leaves Ilie Sanchez to battle with guys who primarily have lined up elsewhere.
You have Gianluca Busio, who played quite well in the deep-lying midfielder role in 2020 when he was called into action. Then you have Felipe Hernandez, who spent the preseason playing this spot, but it was a transition for him from the last few years spent with SKC and SKC II playing further up in the midfield. Because of that, Ilie is the starter, until something changes that. I’m not entirely convinced Walter won’t end up here (or Busio or Hernandez), but for now it’s Ilie.
Dual #8s (Sporting don’t play a true #10)
Here is the second position of real controversy (at least in the order I’ve laid them out). There are four guys who could easily start here in these two spots: Gianluca Busio, Gadi Kinda, Remi Walter and Roger Espinoza. I’m going to throw out Espinoza who could very well be in his last year in KC. He’ll play, but I don’t see him getting more than spot starts barring injuries, though I suspect he’ll consistently come on in relief.
That leaves three really good players (or so we think in Walter) and only two spots. At no point in preseason were all three of them consistently playing so it’s somewhat tough to know who is the first choice. Gadi Kinda missed the most time, playing only 51 preseason minutes (Isi only played 45, but don’t let that impact my narrative). But Walter wasn’t available out of the gate and Busio was the only consistent performer (and consistently healthy body).
I suspect it’ll be Busio and Walter with Kinda coming in off the bench. I doubt Kinda is fully, 90 minutes fit. He runs so hard coming on late and could provide a great burst. It’s wild to think that Kinda is a Designated Player now and he may not start.
By process of elimination, this is Khiry Shelton. However, he needs to prove it to me all over again (like he cares what I think). He started out 2020 like hot fire but then fizzled. I’m holding onto rumors of him playing through injuries to end the year. If he doesn’t perform, or is the first guy off the bench, there are a trio of Homegrowns (Daniel Salloi, Grayson Barber and Ozzie Cisneros) waiting for that job. Or perhaps an out of place midfielder (Busio or Kinda).
The only twist here is if Alan Pulido isn’t healthy enough to start. PV said he isn’t 90 minutes fit and I suspect if he doesn’t start, it’ll be Khiry. If that’s the case, then Daniel Salloi probably starts at left wing.
We all know it’s Alan Pulido if he’s healthy enough to start. I’ll predict he is and he gets subbed off after a pre-determined amount of time. Then again, maybe PV doesn’t trust himself to take Pulido off, so he just plans to bring him on at a pre-determined time. If that happens, Shelton probably gets the start but put me down for wanting to see it go to Wilson Harris. He has zero MLS starts but the kid has a knack for finding a goal. I just hope he gets his chances.
Johnny Russell. I want to stop right there, but I should say some words. He’s the captain now. He plays right wing (even if that may be Khiry’s best spot too). Let the man cut in on his left foot and create and score some goals! JFR!
Teams will still be allowed five substitutions over the course of three substitution periods (plus halftime). The team has no healthy backup fullbacks and very few veterans who aren’t starting period. It’ll be interesting to see if PV shatters an SKC Homegrown record and puts a bunch of these guys out there together. It sounds like a cool way to start what is probably a new era in Kansas City.
Something else to note on substitutions are the new concussion substitutions. Teams get two and when one team uses one, even if the other team is out of subs, they can make a change as well.
The results of the first fan vote of 2021 are hardly fair, because you didn’t have all this late surging injury information that came out Thursday. That said, we’ll still put your results as they came in. There was a tie in the midfield with Ilie and Walter, what are the odds? The healthy starters you changed otherwise were Kinda and Puncec.
Here is your lineup and full vote tallies by category (with the starters in italics):
Goalkeepers: Melia (95.2%), Pulskamp (5.3%), McIntosh (1.9%)
Defenders: Lindsey (87.6%), Puncec (67.5%), Isimat-Mirin (65.6%), Martin (54.5%), Fontas (48.8%), Dia (42.6%), Zusi (13.9%), Smith (5.7%), K. Rad (5.3%)
Midfielders: Busio (76.6%), Kinda (68.4%), Ilie/Walter (56.5%), Espinoza (35.9%), Hernandez (4.3%), Freeman/Duke (1.4%), Barber/Cisneros (0.5%)
Wingers: Russell (95.2%), Shelton (60.8%), Busio (16.3%), Salloi (11.5%), Kinda (6.7%), Pulido (3.3%), Harris (1.9%), Cisneros (1.4%), Barber (1.0%), Freeman/Duke (0.5%) — someone voted for Matias Pellegrini, who at this time hasn’t been traded for and likely won’t be.
Strikers: Pulido (89.0%), Shelton (6.2%), Harris (3.3%), Salloi (1.4%), Freeman/Kinda/Russell/Busio (1.0%)