The start of the 2023 Major League Soccer season is just around the corner. Sporting Kansas City will head on the road to face the Portland Timbers on February 25th. The game will be broadcast for free on Apple TV, no MLS Season Pass required (for this game at least).
But before we get to opening day, there are still some things to be sorted out involving the roster. Before preseason started, Nathan Jowers and I debated what the depth chart should look like, and I must say, my position is evolving.
From all the interviews Peter Vermes has given, and everything we’ve ‘seen’ in preseason and on social media so far, Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda seem unlikely to be ready to start on day one (though PV has stressed they could be ready). For that reason, I’m leaving them out of the depth chart debate, but long-term I think they are both likely to be starters or to be pushing hard to take back their jobs (depending on how things are going of course).
Because of that, barring additional injuries, I don’t think there are that many positions that are up for debate. It would seem the front line is set with Daniel Salloi, Willy Agada and Johnny Russell penciled in from left to right. In the midfield I feel strongly that it’s Erik Thommy likely to be lining up next to Remi Walter (though with no Nemanja Radoja appearing in games yet, you can’t rule out Remi to defensive midfield). And in the back, it feels very likely, unless a big signing is made, Andreu Fontas and Kortne Ford are your central defenders.
That leaves just three positions up for debate: left back, right back and goalkeeper. Let’s check out the three position battles yet to be determined.
Right now, only Ben Sweat has actually played left back in preseason. There have been two games, a 0-1 loss to the Portland Timbers and an 8-0 shelling of Grand Canyon University. In both games Robert Voloder, one of three rostered CBs, played LB for the shift Sweat wasn’t out there. Logan Ndenbe first was dealing with visa issues and then apparently had some minor injury (though I just can’t rule out my crackpot idea that he could be getting sold/loaned somewhere). Tim Leibold has visa issues of his own and is still overseas.
Because of that, Sweat is definitely in the lead. I actually predicted he’d be the starter heading into the season because he finished 2022 so strong and had seemingly stolen the job from the inconsistent 22-year-old Ndenbe. Depending on when Leibold arrives, he may or may not have a chance to steal the job. If the rumors are true and they are paying him $700,000 per season, you simply don’t do that to keep him on the bench. That doesn’t mean he’ll be the day one starter, but I’d assume he’ll have every opportunity to come win the job.
The whole three left back situation doesn’t make a ton of sense, as Ben Sweat himself admitted. If Leibold gets here soon, I’d expect he starts assuming he is healthy and can show flashes of that skill. Otherwise, Sweat is in the driver’s seat in the short-term.
Update: After I wrote this, it was confirmed Leibold arrived Thursday. That position battle is wide-open.
Tim Leibold has arrived in Arizona and trained with #SportingKC for the first time today.— Chad Smith (@PlayFor90) February 2, 2023
On the other side of the backline, you have two guys battling it out who are wildly different players. You have the most senior member of the roster in terms of tenure (and second oldest in age behind Tim Melia) in Graham Zusi. And one of the youngest regularly contributors in 19-year-old Kayden Pierre.
Due to injuries to Zusi, Pierre played a much more significant role in 2022, his first year to break through with the SKC. He had 20 appearances and nine starts for 953 minutes. He added a single assist in that time. Zusi on the other hand started 20 of 21 appearances for 1,659 minutes, the lowest contributions of his career since 2016 (not counting the COVID shortened 2020 season). Outside of 2016, you have to go back to his second year as a pro (2010) to find him on the field less in the regular season.
In an interview earlier in the offseason, Vermes praised Zusi very highly around his conditioning and seeming ability to never age and seemed to imply Pierre isn’t ready to share the load. I think that’s a major nod in the direction of Zusi winning this job, but father time is undefeated. And often young players grow by leaps and bounds. Pierre could still break through and steal this thing, but I’d lean towards Zusi starting right now.
No matter who starts, hopefully both guys will be used as they bring different skills. Zusi has a deadly long switch from RB to Salloi at LW (or even to Agada at CF). Where Pierre seems like he can dribble anyone and is dangerous moving towards the goal. There should be minutes for both of them.
Between this spot and left back, I’m not sure if there is a more open set of competitions. 2022 saw a dip in form for long-time starter Tim Melia and then a hamstring injury shortened his season. John Pulskamp came in and took full advantage. He was a little shaky at times early on, but he made the job his by the end of the year and was in net for that dominant stretch run from Sporting KC.
It’s hard to say who has the upper hand early on. All three goalkeepers have rotated so heavily in preseason, no one player was with the more obvious ‘starter-heavy’ lineup more than once. GK is usually a position that doesn’t age like other spots, so to see a 36-year-old starting, wouldn’t be odd by any means. Pulskamp will turn just 22 the day before the season starts, so he has a long career ahead of him, even if he isn’t starting opening day.
Not to be left out of the equation is Kendall McIntosh who made his first MLS start last year and looked fantastic. He’s a dark horse to win the starting job, but I wouldn’t entirely rule him out. He’s the only ‘third string’ keeper who the team keeps bringing back, versus the revolving door of guys here before him. This one is so much of a toss-up; I don’t even want to make a call today.
Who do you think will win these jobs? What position did I assume is locked in, but you feel is wide open or at least more competitive? Let’s discuss it in the comments below.