Sporting Kansas City are back in KC ready to take on the Portland Timbers to open the 2023 MLS season. A new season means a time to debate who should (and shouldn’t) be playing on opening day and beyond.
MATCH PREVIEW: Sporting KC vs the Portland Timbers
OUT - Kortne Ford (Achilles surgery), Gadi Kinda (knee surgery), Logan Ndenbe (hamstring), Johnny Russell (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE - Alan Pulido (knee surgery)
Update 2/24/23: Pulido is officially listed as questionable, but it definitely sounds like he’s out according to Peter Vermes himself.
#SportingKC injury report as of 2/22 for #SKCvPOR:— Daniel Sperry (@sperrydaniel94) February 23, 2023
QUESTIONABLE - Alan Pulido (!!)
OUT - Gadi Kinda, Kortne Ford, Logan Ndenbe, and Johnny Russell.
PV speaks with the media this afternoon. We'll learn more about the extent of Johnny's hamstring troubles then.
The rest we knew, but Johnny Russell is hurt?!?! Come on man!
Peter Vermes said Johnny Russell tweaked his hamstring in their last pre-season match. Said he is being held out to make sure it doesn't get worse. Said it could be a couple weeks. #SportingKC— Daniel Sperry (@sperrydaniel94) February 23, 2023
Starting XI Predictions
First, we don’t want to confuse this with a depth chart. This isn’t who should be on the top of the depth chart, just who I suspect will start in the first game based on what (little) we know right now after a closed preseason.
Let’s go back to front and break down every single position ahead of the opener. Don’t worry, next week we’ll keep it to just the spots in question.
This might be the position of the biggest debate. There are a lot of Twitter accounts that are either playing fantasy soccer or gambling that are asking me about this nearly daily. I must stress, we don’t know who played in the 4-2 win over Phoenix Rising, but before that, Tim Melia sat out the prior few games. We also know at open training Melia was practicing, but not playing in the scrimmages. He’s not on the injury report, so that’s something.
I suspect John Pulskamp is the opening day starter. It’s also possible he was going to be the starter regardless of Melia’s condition. He started down the stretch in 2022 (when Melia was injured) and looked good. That said, all these Twitter accounts that follow me are sure to be disappointed if I missed on this (which is super possible).
The never-ending saga to replace Seth Sinovic continues. The team now has three players on the senior roster at this position: Ben Sweat, Logan Ndenbe and new signing Tim Leibold.
Tim Leibold immediately started when he had been in camp more than a couple days, even though he only went 30 minutes, that says something. Plus, the rumor is they are paying him $700,000. The expectation has to be he’s head and shoulders better than his competition to get that much money. I seriously doubt he has 90 minutes in him, so that’s my only pause on starting him. If not him, then it’ll be Ben Sweat since Ndenbe has been nursing a hamstring injury. I’m guessing Leibold.
The position of the greatest concern on the roster. With Kortne Ford going down for the entire season, the only holdovers from 2022 are Andreu Fontas and Robert Voloder. They also have the most experience at the higher levels than new signings Chris Rindov and Robert Castellanos.
I think it’s their job to lose. The only debate is who plays on the right as they are both left footed. I’m guessing Fontas, even though he struggled there at times when he was paired with Matt Besler in 2019. Voloder just seems more left side dependent (he’s even played some left back).
Late in 2022 it was Kayden Pierre. I hope eventually he will claim this job as his own. However, I expect it’ll be Graham Zusi based on the comments Peter Vermes has made about both players. Zusi missed a lot of action in 2022 with injuries though, so Pierre will get his chances and he has to step up and claim the job (even if he is still only 20-years-old).
Nemanja Radoja was signed to play this spot. The only problem is, in the four preseason games we saw (as mentioned, we missed the fifth), he wasn’t healthy enough to play. In open training it appears he was back in action, so maybe he’s ready to go. He’s another player that if he can play, it’s unclear if he has 90 minutes in his legs.
Last season Remi Walter played this spot when the other options (Rosell and Mauri) didn’t work out. What’s interesting is in preseason, he definitely didn’t appear to be playing there. It was a rotation of Roger Espinoza, Felipe Hernandez and new signing Danny Flores. Espinoza is my dark horse to start here if Radoja can’t go, though PV could always swap him and Walter around to go with a more tried and true setup.
This is no competition right now if Erik Thommy is healthy (he missed some preseason games). It’ll be Tommy and the aforementioned Walter, with Thommy lining up on the left. Gadi Kinda isn’t healthy and ready to go yet (though that’ll be a competition when he is).
It’s possible Espinoza could always start here, and Walter could drop deeper and if Radoja isn’t healthy enough to start I’d guess it’s the trio of Thommy, Walter and Espinoza (though don’t rule out Hernandez being the third man over Espionza).
The forward line isn’t much of a debate. Daniel Salloi is the starting left winger. Barring injuries or poor form, he’ll probably start a ton of games here and I suspect Marinos Tzionis will be his primary backup, though don’t rule out Pulido going wide left and kind of drifting in underneath Agada to get them on the field together more. I think whoever is at left back and provide that width and this could really work.
Speaking of Willy Agada, I can’t imagine he’s not the day one starter. Alan Pulido only recently returned to training, and you can’t start all these guys who aren’t 90 minutes fit. It’s much more likely we see Pulido off the bench, if he’s available at all in the opener.
Plus, Agada played so well last year down the stretch and in what little preseason we saw, he probably deserves to start regardless. Agada could be an MLS Golden Boot contender!
It’s the Captain Johnny Russell... if he was healthy. It sounds like Khiry Shelton is his backup (and if the team is leading that’s fine with me). If the team is chasing a goal though, I’d prefer it be Marinos Tzionis here. I suspect we see Khiry as the opening day starter which should send the internet into a frenzy.
Rest of the 20: Melia, Tzionis, Sweat, Hernandez, Espinoza,
Pulido, Rindov, Duke, Pierre, Castellanos (added after the news Pulido is probably out)
Already a less than ideal first 11 and its only opening day. Good news: it’s a long season and apparently everyone makes the playoffs. Don’t panic quite yet.
You all obviously didn’t have the Russell news so that skews things a bit. I love that 330 (!!!) people voted before this story was published. Opening day!
Though, this is kind of boring, but we 100% agreed (minus the Russell thing no one knew until today). I make a point not to read the comments on the predict the lineup story (though I’ll go read them now) and to look at the voting until I’ve done my lineup. So, I’m not sure if that’s me influencing you all or great minds just thinking alike.
A few outliers. I’m kind of stunned Walter doesn’t have 100% of the starting midfield vote. Thommy I could see because he missed some preseason time, but Remi is the man. If he’s not a starting #8, he’s the #6. Also, we left Pulido out of the CF vote (but he got a few write-ins) which probably messed with that number. I’ll be sure to scold Ben for all of you!
Lastly, some folks that got votes I can’t help but wonder if some of you are messing around because I just can’t see some of these guys starting. They got to go earn it for me.
Here is the tally of your fan vote. Starters in italics and I went ahead and put in all the votes this week because so many of you made the effort to vote (though there were some weird write-ins I left out and will cause me not to do this in the future — Isimat-Mirin isn’t on the team people).
Goalkeepers: Pulskamp (51.8%), Melia (47.6%), McIntosh (0.9%)
Defenders: Fontas (97.6%), Voloder (81.2%), Zusi (80.6%), Leibold (43.3%), Sweat (41.5%), Ndenbe (18.8%), Pierre (18.5%), Rindov (6.7%), Castellanos (5.2%)
Midfielders: Thommy (93.9%), Walter (91.2%), Radoja (52.7%), Espinoza (29.1%), Hernandez (18.8%), Tzionis (7.0%), Duke (5.8%), Flores (1.8%), Zusi (1.5%), Cisneros (0.9%), Davis (0.3%)
Wingers: Russell (97.6%), Salloi (94.2%), Agada (3.9%), Tzionis (3.0%), Shelton (1.2%), Cisneros (0.6%), Duke (0.3%)
Strikers: Agada (94.8%), Salloi (2.4%), Russell/Shelton (1.2%), Pulido (1.2%), Cisneros (0.9%)
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