When Sporting Kansas City opens the 2018 Major League Soccer season against New York City FC on Sunday night at Children’s Mercy Park, it will have as many as five new players in the starting lineup. That could make for an unpredictable season.
But we’re going to give a try anyway. Here are 13 predictions for Sporting KC this year:
1. Sporting Kansas City’s starting striker in October will be a player who is not currently on the roster. The primary objective for the offseason was acquiring a high-dollar striker to revamp the offense in 2018. It hasn’t happened. Not yet. The club hasn’t given up its pursuit, and the MLS transfer window remains open through May 1. The summer window will re-open from July 10-Aug. 8. Making such additions during the summer is often easier because of the overseas schedule, and although it’s not generally a path Sporting KC has preferred, necessity could force its hand.
2. The playoffs will return to Children’s Mercy Park in 2018. You’re probably as tired of reading this sentence as I am typing it: Sporting KC has not hosted a playoff game since it won the MLS Cup in 2013. That’s four straight one-and-done playoff appearances, all of them on the road. That will change in 2018, when the team finishes in the top-four in the Western Conference to secure a home playoff match. That also means an eighth straight postseason berth.
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3. Sporting KC will still play in the knockout round of the postseason. It falls into the category of a safe pick, not a bold one, but Sporting KC fits somewhere in the third-or fourth-place range in the Western Conference, which appears to still be playing catch-up with the East. Only the top two finishers in each conference receive a first-round bye in the postseason, leaving Sporting KC to play in the knockout match.
4. This will be the last year in Kansas City for at least one of the club’s core players. Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza will be MLS free agents after the season. Sporting KC coach and technical director Peter Vermes has never been shy about letting long-term contributors walk. He traded Dom Dwyer last summer and traded Benny Feilhaber this winter. Look for at least one of the three free agents to leave Kansas City next offseason.
5. Sporting KC will not have a player finish in the top-20 in MLS in goals scored. There’s a new-look offense in Kansas City — more on that later this week — but none of the additions are proven goal scorers in MLS. A year ago, when Sporting KC finished ninth in the 11-team Western Conference in scoring, its best scorer was Gerso Fernandes, who was 36th in the league with eight. That number will not be enough to lead the team again this season, but don’t expect someone to bag 20 goals in 2018.
On the other hand...
6. Sporting KC will lead the league in goals allowed. It will be difficult to replicate the defensive prowess from 2017, when Sporting KC gave up only 29 goals in 34 MLS matches. But don’t expect the club to take too far of a step back. Tim Melia is still in goal. Matt Besler and Ike Opara still make up the center of the back line. And that’s a good place to start.
7. A Sporting KC teenager will make his MLS debut. The team signed two homegrown teenagers last year — inking 15-year-old forward Gianluca Busio in August and 17-year-old Jaylin Lindsey a month later. Lindsey is closer to MLS-ready and could emerge as the top backup to Graham Zusi at right back. He will turn 18 next month.
8. Among the offseason acquisitions, Felipe Gutierrez will make the most significant impact. He will finish with fewer goals than first-year MLS players Yohan Croizet and Johnny Russell, so the impact might be more subtle. But think back to 2017: Ilie Sanchez made a huge difference in Sporting KC’s possession. That is the type of effect to expect from Gutierrez, a 27-year-old Chilean national team player.
9. The most anticipated match of the season will be Sept. 8. That’s the date Dom Dwyer is scheduled to return to Children’s Mercy Park. Dwyer, now with Orlando City SC, is the second leading scorer in Sporting KC history. Midfielder Benny Feilhaber, traded to Los Angeles FC in January, returns for the season finale on Oct. 28.
10. Tim Melia will be the MLS All-Star goalkeeper. Melia and defender Ike Opara were glaring snubs from the 2017 MLS All-Star contest. Melia went on to win the MLS goalkeeper of the year honor, and Opara won the defender of the year, making their absences that much worse. But all-star selections are usually a mixture of performances during the current season coupled with career accomplishments. With that honor on his resume now, Melia will be hard to overlook, and his numbers should remain consistent with this defense in front of him.
11. Sporting KC will make another run in the U.S. Open Cup, but it won’t win it. OK, it’s not exactly a leap to pick the field over just one team, but that’s been a 50-50 choice over the past six seasons — three titles for Sporting KC, three for everyone else. The club has a knack for success in the tournament, and much of that is instilled by Vermes and a coaching staff that take the competition extremely seriously. Don’t expect an early exit.
12. Matt Besler will become the franchise’s all-time leader in games played and games started. This is an easy one, health-pending. Besler is 15 matches shy of breaking the appearances record, currently owned by Davy Arnaud (240), and he’s nine starts shy of the latter mark, set by Kerry Zavagnin (228). Sporting Kansas City’s captain has averaged 27 appearances per year over the past seven seasons.
13. The Sporting KC substitutes will account for at least six goals in 2018. Sure, it might not seem like all that many. But consider this: Sporting KC received just three goals from substitutes last year. With the acquisitions this offseason, the bench will see a boost. Daniel Salloi, Gerso Fernandes and either Khiry Shelton or Diego Rubio will likely be weapons there in the opening weekend.