Once again, Sporting Kansas City’s depth will get a stiff test.
It’s almost easier to list off the players who will be available for an Eastern Conference clash with the Columbus Crew at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Sporting Park.
Defender Matt Besler and midfielder Graham Zusi are with the U.S. men’s national team.
On Monday, forward Kei Kamara transferred to Middlesbrough FC in England’s second division — though he would have been away with Sierra Leone’s national team anyway.
Forward Dom Dwyer was loaned back to Orlando City SC for the USL Pro championship game. Goalkeeper Jon Kempin, a Blue Valley North graduate, and midfielder Christian Duke, a Shawnee Mission South grad, have been with the Lions all season.
Finally, midfielder Peterson Joseph and defender Mechack Jerome were called up by Haiti’s national team.
That leaves coach Peter Vermes with 22 players at his disposal, a group that includes five players — midfielders Mikey Lopez and Jimmy Medranda along with defenders Kyle Miller, Erik Palmer-Brown and Brendan Ruiz — with no MLS experience.
“When we were having to deal with a lot of different things early on in the season, I thought, ‘Hopefully, this is going to pay dividends as we get toward the end of the season,’” Vermes said.
Fortunately for Sporting KC and Vermes, veteran midfielder Paulo Nagamura returned last week, playing into the 78th minute during a CONCACAF Champions League clash at CD Olimpia in Honduras and going the distance during a 2-1 win against Colorado.
“He’s that little pit bull out there,” Vermes said. “He’s not only a very good player, but he’s also a very experienced player and he’s a winner. Those qualities are missed when he’s not out there, so to be able to add another player like that into the middle of the midfield really helps us. That’s our engine room. We’re missing a little bit when he’s not in there.”
Joseph, who often filled in during Nagamura’s absence, doesn’t bring the same frenzied tenacity Nagamura brings. He’s working on it, but Joseph isn’t there yet.
“Maybe I bring a little more tenacity and bite in the middle,” Nagamura said. “I’m just really happy to be back now, so I can bring that back to the team. Maybe I bring a spark to the team and push us closer to the playoffs.”
Nagamura missed 10 matches with a sprained ankle he suffered June 22 at FC Dallas, and watching Sporting go 5-4-1 during that span wasn’t easy for the 30-year-old native of Brazil and nine-year MLS veteran.
“It was very tough,” Nagamura said. “Dealing with the same injury I had last year, it was really tough to sit out and not be able to help the team on the field. That’s probably the toughest thing when you see the team is struggling and you’re outside the lines and cannot help. It was a tough two months, but I’m really happy that I’m back now.”
Sporting KC, 12-9-6, enters Saturday in a three-way tie atop the Eastern Conference with the Montreal Impact and New York Red Bulls.
Nagamura hopes he can help the Sporting KC surge not only to a third straight regular-season conference championship but also to the second Supporters’ Shield in club history.
“Every game now is like a final and we have to get the most points we can,” Nagamura said. “To be honest, we’re still looking for the Supporters’ Shield. We want to be the best team in the league. Like I said, every game is important and every point that we get is important.”
It starts with Columbus.