Sporting Kansas City II are in their final preparations ahead of the inaugural season of MLS NEXT Pro. This season will be quite unique as SKC II ventures into a new league, with a new coach, at a new home and a whole bunch of new players.
Swope Park Rangers 3.0 will split their home games between Happy Rock Park in Lawrence, Kansas, and the more familiar Swope Soccer Village. SKC II will play their first nine home games at Happy Rock Park until August when they will transition to Swope Soccer Village for the remaining three home matches (Full Schedule).
The first season of MLS NEXT Pro includes 21 teams split into two conferences, 11 in the West and 10 in the East. Both conferences will be broken up into two divisions.
There will be an eight-team playoff to determine the champion of the first MLS NEXT Pro season. Teams admitted to the playoffs include the winner of each division and the two teams with the next most points from each conference.
All games will be streamed through the league’s website MLSNextPro.com.
USL Championship Record: 4W — 20L — 8T = 20 pts — 8th in the Central Division
- Missed playoffs for third straight season
- Lowest points per game in team history
Goals Leader: Enoch Mushagalusa (8 goals)
Assists Leader: Jake Davis (6 assists)
The 2021 season was pretty disappointing for SKC II as they tied a club-record 20 losses in perhaps their worst year since beginning play in 2016. That led to quite an overhaul in the offseason as they leaned into a new era.
Heading into a new era comes a transformed SKC II team and coaching staff.
The most notable offseason offload was manager Paulo Nagamura after four seasons in charge. Nagamura was named head coach of the Houston Dynamo, joined by his SKC II assistant Chris Martinez and Sporting legend Jimmy Nielsen.
On the pitch, the personnel will look much different with 22 players leaving the club since last season. The following players were with SKC II at some point in 2021 and are no longer with the club.
DEFENDERS (8): Jaylin Lindsey (Charlotte FC); Roberto Puncec (Botev Plovdiv-Bulgaria); Amadou Dia (Louisville City); Graham Smith (Memphis 901); Danny Barbir (Oakland Roots); Petar Cuic (FC Tulsa); Isaiah LeFlore (Braga B-Portugal); Matt Constant (Unknown)
MIDFIELDERS (2): Christian Duke (KC Comets); Bailey Sparks (Southern Methodist University)
FORWARDS (8): Dominik Resetar (Inter Zapresic-Croatia); Rojay Smith (Forward Madison); Enoch Mushagalusa (Louisville City); Wilson Harris (Louisville City); Ropapa Mensah (Port Fouad-Egypt); David Panka (Panathinaikos B-Greece) Jamil Roberts (Unknown); Grayson Barber (Unknown)
Aljaz Dzankic and Jahon Rad are the only returning SKC II players under contract the prior season. Additionally, left-back Coby Jones has signed a contract after joining last season on an Academy contract.
The most notable addition was Benny Feilhaber being named as the team’s fourth-ever head coach. Ike Opara was also named as an assistant coach and Darrin MacLeod will remain as goalkeeper coach.
With so many departures, there had to be some additions. There have been a total of 16 signings so far, making 18 players on the roster with the ability to receive players on loan from the first team and sign Academy players to sign Academy contracts.
GOALKEEPERS (1): Ethan Bandre (Northwestern University)
DEFENDERS (5): Joseph Addo Tetteh (Accra Lions FC); Spencer Glass (Indiana University); Cole McLagan (Greenville Triumph); Coby Jones (SKC Academy); Esai Easley (Grand Canyon University)
MIDFIELDERS (3): Collin Fernandez (Austin Bold FC); Curtez Kellman (Daytona State); Cade Thompson (Xavier University)
FORWARDS (7): Rauf Salifu (Accra Lions FC); Bakary Bakayoko (Lipscomb University); Josh Coan (Marquette University); Julian Vazquez (Real Salt Lake); Paul Atta Agyei (Berekum Chelsea FC); Tijani Fatah (NYCFC Academy); Dembakwi Yomba (KF Laci)
Sporting II played five preseason matches, getting two wins, two losses and a tie. In those five games, SKC II was outscored 7-6 and the team had five different goal scorers.
SKC II 0-3 Indy Eleven — February 19 — Indianapolis, Indiana
SKC II 1-2 Chicago Fire FC — February 23 — Indianapolis, Indiana
- SKC II goals: 24’ (1-0 KC) — Bakary Bagayoko
SKC II 1-0 FC Tulsa — March 5 — Tulsa, Oklahoma
- SKC II goals: 90’ (1-0 KC) — Mataeo Bunbury
SKC II 1-1 Union Omaha — March 13 — Kansas City, Missouri
- SKC II goals: 57’ (1-0 KC) — Julian Vazquez
SKC II 3-1 UMKC — March 20 — Kansas City, Missouri
- SKC II goals: 7’ (1-0 KC) — Rauf Salifu; 50’ (2-1 KC) — Tijani Fatah; 72’ (3-1) — Rauf Salifu
For the first time since 2018, SKC II will have the opportunity to genuinely compete for a playoff spot and possibly a league title. Hopefully, that will help draw more interest to the team.
This league was very much needed to reintroduce competition into these MLS developmental teams. Of the 11 MLS-affiliated clubs in the USL, only the Colorado Springs Switchbacks (USL Championship) and North Texas FC (USL League One) made the playoffs in 2021.
Of course, there will be some growing pains with this team in transition and with a league in its inaugural season. There will be a lot to learn this season, especially considering there is little known about so many of the signings.
Among the new crop of players includes Rauf Salifu, who scored 21 goals before coming on loan from Ghanaian side Accra Lions FC. Salifu was the only SKC II player to score multiple times in preseason.
This also seems like an important season for Jahon Rad. Alongside the frequent loan of Jake Davis, Rad is going to need to play well for this season to go well for SKC II.
Previewing the conference, SKC II should fair pretty well. St Louis will likely cause some trouble with all the momentum they have built. Colorado may be decent with the signing of Dillon Serna.
We will see what Sporting II is made of in the season-opener on Sunday, March 27 when they visit Rapids 2.
Nathan (@8ndunn) says: 2nd place in the Frontier, behind Rapids 2
- Most Valuable Player: Rauf Salifu
- Newcomer of the Year: Rauf Salifu
- Comeback Player of Year: Jahon Rad
- Leading Goal scorer: Rauf Salifu
Chad (@PlayFor90) says: 2nd place in the Frontier, behind North Texas SC
With so many unproven teams, North Texas having existed while many of the other teams didn’t, plus their robust academy, I’m guessing they do well as they used to in USL League One. St. Louis City SC 2 should come to play with fans rabid to support their MLS team that’s a year away and everyone else is a toss-up for me. At least it should be more competitive.
- Most Valuable Player: Spencer Glass
Unglamorous, but I have a feeling he’ll be asked to do a lot, play tons of minutes and many positions. Even though it’ll be his pro debut, the way PV talked about him in preseason with the first team, gives him some weight in my mind.
NewcomerAcademy Loanee of the Year: Mataeo Bunbury
Since everyone’s a newcomer, I’m cheating and making my own category. Bunbury will breakout and hopefully earn a first team deal.
- Comeback Player of Year: Jahon Rad
Only two players are back from last year and Aljaz Dzankic looked raw last year. I’m going with J. Rad.
- Leading Goal scorer: Mataeo Bunbury
I’m all in on Mataeo!
Thad (@TheBackpost) - Impossible to predict but “near the top” is my best estimate.
- Most Valuable Player: Spencer Glass - I want to go with someone different but he has looked good each time I’ve seen him. Okay, maybe not every time, the SKC preseason game was not bad but not great. He did look god in the practices and SKC II preseason game against Omaha. Spending a lot of time with the first team in preseason and being an older player bodes well for him to be a leader on SKC II. Hopefully some fantastic midfielder or attacker steps up to make for a more exciting MVP by the end of the season.
- Newcomer of the Year: Considering everyone is a newcomer with the exception of Rad and Dzankic, I will cheat (my prerogative) and say Benny Feilhaber.
- Comeback Player of Year: I will take this as a returning player category, Jahon Rad would be my choice. Dzankic did not look great last year or in the little time I’ve seen him in preseason.
- Leading Goal scorer: Rauf Salifu (sure?) - I would like to say Mateo Bunbury also but if he is doing that well there is a great chance that he would sign with the first team and not see as many games as with SKC II.
Ultimately, I am not too concerned with how SKC II finishes, only that it produces some wins and players for the senior side. If Bunbury scores 30 goals or Coby Jones gets 20 assists from the wing, nobody will care how the team finished. A lot of wins will be a lot more fun though.