The locker-room door swung open Monday morning at the Sporting Kansas City training complex, and goalkeepers Andrew Dykstra and Adrian Zendejas were the first two players to walk out. Two days after starter Tim Melia strained his hamstring — an injury that will sideline him at least two to four weeks — the battle for his job officially commenced.
A day later, on Tuesday, Dykstra and Zendejas were the final stragglers on the field, absorbing penalty kicks and long-distance shots from teammates and then coaches.
The two relatively anonymous players over the initial eight months of the MLS season are now in the center of the action, and at least one of them will play a key factor in Sporting Kansas City’s playoff hunt, and perhaps even its postseason fate.
With a win Wednesday in Houston, Sporting KC would clinch a playoff spot and move into a first-place tie in the Western Conference.
“Both players are probably in a good spot to come in and take the position and run with it,” coach Peter Vermes said. “And that’s what somebody is going to have to do over who knows how long.”
Although Vermes has almost certainly decided which player he intends to start in place of Melia on Wednesday, he isn’t tipping his hand.
Instead, he analyzes the pros and cons of each. There’s Dykstra, a 31-year-old who has 32 MLS games on his resume. There’s Zendejas, a 22-year-old rookie who has never appeared in an MLS match.
On the one hand, Zendejas has played well in his loan with the Swope Park Rangers this season, a 1.00 goals-against average in 22 matches. He’s seen as talented enough to potentially be the goalkeeper of the future. On the other, with only three matches remaining in the regular season, it’s a risk to throw a rookie into a playoff race to make his MLS debut.
These are the two options. And trying them both over the next three matches isn’t off the table.
“We’re going to have to figure out here over the next couple of games what we’re going to be doing going forward,” Vermes said, adding, “With goalkeeper, it’s a very specific position, so it’s a little bit more difficult (to keep them fresh). I’m confident with the games those guys have gotten — that the Swope Park Rangers have given them a pretty decent routine. As you look at both, Zendejas has probably gotten more games (with Swope Park) overall, but Dykstra has a lot more experience.”
The latter offers Dykstra an advantage that Zendejas can’t overcome on the practice field. While serving as the top backup to D.C. United’s Bill Hamid, Dykstra played in 14 matches from 2014-16, allowing 23 goals.
“It’s more of a mental adjustment than anything,” Dykstra said of the possibility of being moved into the starting lineup. “I would walk into the locker room in D.C. on game day and not know for sure if I was playing until I saw my name on the board as the starter, and then you gotta switch it on. Fortunately, I’ve had that practice, which helps prepare you now.”
Whichever way Vermes goes with his decision, the transition is unlikely to be seamless. Melia was playing at a league-record level in 2017. His 0.78 goals against average is the lowest in league history for keepers appearing in at least 30 games.
It’s not just the stats. Melia spent the preseason working on his perceived weakness — becoming part of the buildup. Sporting KC prefers to work the ball up the field rather than bombing the ball to the forwards, a process that often starts with the keeper.
Zendejas has tried to replicate that in his time with the Rangers, which dates back to 2016. Although Dykstra has MLS experience, it’s his first season playing in that type of system.
“It’s a big change from before. I’ve felt like I’ve always had good ability with my feet, but I’ve never belonged with a team that allowed me to play out of the back,” Dykstra said. “It took a little adjusting. It’s a different system — it’s an actual system. Over the course of the year, I’ve gotten much better with it.”
He just hasn’t tested that yet in an MLS match. He might need to Wednesday.