Sporting Kansas City’s 2023 season debut is only days away. After an uncharacteristic 2022 season where SKC finished 12th in the Western Conference and missed the playoffs for only the second time since the rebrand, the team is looking to build on the momentum it had the last ten games of the season when Willy Agada and Erik Thommy led the team to a strong finish. The 2022 team scored 42 goals with 23 of those coming in the final ten games. Defensively, the team conceded 54 times and was especially vulnerable to counterattacks. What can we expect in 2023?
Peter Vermes and Brian Bliss did very little to turn over the roster heading into the season.
Centerback Nicolas Isimat-Mirin left on a free and headed back to Europe.
Homegrown centerback Kaveh Rad left in free agency and signed with Hartford Athletic.
Sporting KC added Nemanja Radoja, a Serbian defensive midfielder, who has played nearly his entire career in La Liga.
The team also added left back Tim Leibold from Germany.
After Kortne Ford’s season ending injury, Sporting signed draft pick Chris Rindov and USL journeyman Robert Castellanos, both centerbacks.
According to Vermes, the team is currently pursuing one more centerback.
Designated Player, Alan Pulido, is recovering from surgery in 2022 and should be healthy enough to compete a few weeks into the season. When healthy, Pulido is a great player who operates somewhere in between a true striker and an attacking midfielder. (A 9.5 if you will). He drops deep to collect the ball and drags defenders all over the field. Pulido’s passing range is strong and he’s capable of playing balls in to Russell and Salloi to get into dangerous positions.
Pulido’s main competition at the 9 is Willy Agada. Agada was a midseason addition from the Israeli Premier League and scored eight goals in 10 starts for SKC. Agada represents something entirely different than Pulido. He makes clever runs and finds pockets of space in the box to collect crosses and rebounds. The underlying data suggests that Agada’s form from 2022 is very replicable and he should be dangerous in 2023.
Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell are the presumptive starters on the wing. They’re well-known entities for the team. Marinos Tzionis, a U-22 Initiative player, in his second year and Khiry Shelton will back up Russell and Salloi on the wings. Additionally, Erik Thommy can play on the left wing in a pinch.
Overall, the team has plenty of attacking talent. Each of the Russell, Salloi, Agada, and Pulido is capable of putting up 10+ goals in a season.
As usual, Sporting will employ the dual “8s” as midfielders with a single defensive midfielder behind in support. Erik Thommy and Remi Walter will presumably start the season at the dual 8s while Gadi Kinda recovers from his season ending injury from 2022. Thommy plays much more of a 8/10 hybrid role, as more of an attacking threat coming from the left. Thommy was a vital part of the late season run for Sporting and is a Designated Player in 2023.
Remi Walter has shown an ability to attack and score from the midfield but also play as a defensive midfielder. He’s capable of breaking up plays through the middle and is a true box-to-box midfielder. In support, Sporting KC will have Felipe Hernandez, who had a breakout 2022 season, and veteran Roger Espinoza. Homegrown, Cam Duke, is another depth piece who has shown flashes of brilliance but has limited opportunities.
Defensive midfielder is likely Radoja’s to lose. He’s an experienced defensive midfielder with high level experience and frees up Walter to play higher up the pitch. However, Remi Walter’s flexibility allows the club to rotate, if necessary, as he played a substantial number of minutes from the “6” in 2022. If Radoja can live up to the hype, he’ll provide needed cover to the centerbacks.
The real question is how he’ll play the position. Throughout the years, the 6 has rotated between a deep lying playmaker (Gianluca Busio), a passing machine (Ilie and Uri 1.0), and more of a destroyer (Soni Mustivar). Ilie often functioned as a 3rd centerback during his early years where he would drop between the centerbacks and allow them to flare out wider. This allowed the fullbacks to push higher up the field and help in the attack. If Radoja can effectively cover, we could see this happen again, allowing for Sporting to throw more numbers forward in attack.
Graham Zusi is back for another season. He ceded some minutes to homegrown Kayden Pierre who showed real potential, especially with his progressive runs up the field. The only question at rightback is: how healthy can Zusi be and how much will Pierre get to rotate in?
Tim Leibold is an attacking leftback who was brought in on the left to compete with U-22 signing Logan Ndenbe, and MLS veteran Ben Sweat. Leibold has some strong attacking numbers from the German second division, so it’s clear the team thinks he can help in the attack from wide positions.
Centerback represents the biggest question mark for Sporting KC in 2023. Andreu Fontas is back for another season. In the last two years he’s been near the top of the league in Goals Added (g+), meaning that he’s contributed to more goals than most other players. On the other hand, after a strong 2021, Fontas had a regression on the defensive side of things in 2022. Lapses in focus and missteps led to a number of goals early in the season.
His partner on the backline is German U-22 player, Robert Voloder. Voloder saw little action in 2022 but was signed as a U-22 player, indicating that the team thinks he has a lot of potential. If Voloder can play up to his potential, SKC’s back line has a chance to be improved over the 2022 edition. As of the writing of this article, their backups in central defense are Chris Rindov and Robert Castellanos. Totally unknown players who are tough to scout and set expectations for.
Tim Melia had a down year in 2022 by his standards before suffering an injury and missing the rest of the season. In his stead homegrown player, John Pulskamp, stood in goal with mixed results. Pulskamp let in some howlers but also showed some great tools that show why the team believes in him. Melia was re-signed in the offseason and this position might have the most competition in the squad.
Sporting Kansas City has largely chosen to run it back from the 2022 team that struggled for most of the season without two of their designated players. Pulido and Kinda should return to compete. If they can play close to their 2021 form, SKC should be very competitive. However, this team could struggle with age, injuries, and an inexperienced central defense.
This is a big year for the club with their relationship with the fans as well. It’s been 10 years since the team won MLS Cup. Fans are angry at increased kit prices and stagnation with the gameday experience. For more on this, take a listen to the Shades of Blue episode on the State of the Cauldron with Cauldronite, Zach Cobb.
For more predictions on golden boot, assists, and our thoughts on how the team will finish, check out the latest episode of the Shades of Blue.
Let me know your thoughts on the 2023 season in the comments below. While you’re at it, please subscribe to the Shades of Blue where you can hear Thad Bell, Cody Bradley, Robert Russert, and me talk about match previews, match reactions, transfer news, and just get general banter.