Eric Kronberg waited nearly a decade for the chance to be a starting goalkeeper in Major League Soccer. His first eight seasons with the Sporting Kansas City franchise included only four starts.
His ninth was supposed to be the breakout year he long coveted, the year when patience finally paid off.
It was headed that way — he posted seven shutouts in the first 17 games this year — before he broke a bone in his left hand and spent two months on the injured list. The injury shifted Kronberg to a familiar role — spectator.
But the breakout season can get back on track Thursday.
Kronberg likely will get his first start since July 6 when Sporting KC plays host to Deportivo Saprissa at 7 p.m. Thursday in a CONCACAF Champions League group stage match.
“I’m definitely eager to rejoin the team,” Kronberg said. “Going through injuries is always hard, no matter where you are on the depth chart. But obviously being the starter and having a pretty good season made it kind of a big blow to have to go through an injury.”
Kronberg broke the fourth metacarpal bone on his left hand during a July 9 training session. He dived to save a shot, but he landed awkwardly on a portable goal.
He continued practicing with the team over the past two months to stay in shape, but he was unable to use his left hand. He returned to training as a full participant last week.
“He needs to get back in the rhythm of playing games, but he’s looked pretty good in training,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said.
After initially using a soft pad under his glove to cushion his left hand from violent shots, Kronberg removed the device this week. Instead, he’s taping two fingers together to prevent them from being bent backward.
Kronberg said he stopped a couple of hard shots with his left hand this week, and he reported no ill-effects.
“It’s feeling good,” Kronberg said. “I’m still getting my strength back, but it feels really close to 100 percent. I’ve been happy with my progression for sure.”
He returns to an impressive statistical line in his first season as the full-time starter. He was 7-5-5 with league-best 0.88 goals-against average before suffering the injury. His seven shutouts still rank fourth in the league.
Over the two months he missed, Sporting KC posted only one shutout — a 4-0 victory Friday against Chivas USA that broke a four-game losing streak.
Andy Gruenebaum recorded that shutout and had the bulk of the playing time in Kronberg’s absence. Gruenebaum was unbeaten in his first four games and went 5-3-1 overall — perhaps creating a goalkeeper controversy with both players healthy again.
Vermes said Kronberg is likely to get Thursday’s start, but he was mostly noncommittal when asked if Kronberg will regain his role atop the depth chart for the stretch run of the MLS season.
“It’s all about him getting in form,” Vermes said. “If he gets back in form, he has a good chance of being the guy.”
DEPORTIVO SAPRISSA AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
▪ COMPETITION: CONCACAF Champions League group stage
▪ WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. Thursday, at Sporting Park
▪ TV: Fox Sports 1
▪ ABOUT DEPORTIVO SAPRISSA: The Costa Rican club is 3-0-1 through its first four league matches in the Costa Rican Primera Division Apertura. It is making its fourth all-time appearance in the CCL and has an 8-7-5 all-time mark in group play. It leads Group 2 with four points through two matches.
▪ ABOUT SPORTING KC: The club qualified for its second straight CCL competition by winning the 2013 MLS Cup. It’s the only MLS team to qualify for the competition in each of the past two seasons. Sporting KC broke a four-game league losing streak with a 4-0 win Friday against Chivas USA.
▪ BOTTOM LINE: The winner of tonight’s match will be in the driver’s seat in Group 2. Sporting KC tied Real Esteli in its first group match. It will play host to Real Esteli on Tuesday before making the return trip to Saprissa on Oct. 23 to close out group play.
▪ PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, Saprissa 1