Sporting Kansas City is less than three weeks from its season opener, and when the club plays host to New York City FC on March 4, there will be some notable changes to the starting lineup.
But one of the team’s offseason objectives remains unaccomplished — adding a striker.
Thus, when I sent out a call for Sporting KC-related questions this week, several started there. In the interest of time, let me just say that this story from last week still contains the most up-do-date information on the striker search.
On to your questions...
If I had to decide today — picking only from players currently on the roster — I’d say Sporting KC lines up like this on March 4 against New York City FC:
Goalkeeper: Tim Melia
Back line: Jimmy Medranda, Matt Besler, Ike Opara and Graham Zusi
Midfield: Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez
Wings: Yohan Croizet and Johnny Russell
Striker: Diego Rubio
That, in turn, answers the second question above. It’s most likely Gerso Fernandes moves to the substitute role. But keep in mind that Russell has not yet arrived in Arizona — he is scheduled to fly there Wednesday night and take part in his first training session Thursday — so he would have to be on the fast track to start by the season opener. If he’s unable to go on March 4, I’d replace him with Fernandes or Daniel Salloi.
For me, the biggest question in the starting lineup is how coach Peter Vermes shapes his midfield. Croizet believes his best position is a No. 10, but the acquisition of Gutierrez might push him to the wing. If Croizet sticks in the midfield instead, well, things could get complicated. Gutierrez is the club’s most expensive acquisition of the offseason, so he figures to start. Would Espinoza or Sanchez be sent to the bench?
Medranda will get every opportunity to open the season as the starting left back. Sporting KC likes his ability to push forward and press from the position. That leaves the left back depth chart as Medranda, Seth Sinovic and Cristian Lobato, in that order. The team has used Lobato more on the wing in preseason.
At right back, Graham Zusi is the obvious starter. If healthy, newly acquired Brad Evans should slide into the primary backup role there, with Jaylin Lindsey third on the list. If Lindsey is not counted on to be second on the depth chart, that would free him up for regular minutes with the Swope Park Rangers, which he needs. That’s the point of having a USL team in your backyard.
After Sporting KC dealt an international spot to Colorado on Tuesday for $100,000 in general allocation money, it announced all seven remaining international spots are filled. And that’s true.
In reality, the team has some plans in the works to free up one international spot, and it’s also trying to secure a green card for a couple of players. If the team signs a striker, it will have an international spot open to bring him here. That’s not a worry.
There has been a lot of talk about the new attacking players, and rightfully so after Sporting KC struggled to score last season. But Felipe Gutierrez could be a major piece of the club’s success in 2018. I’ve yet to see him play, but smart people in this industry believe he is Sporting KC’s best signing this offseason. Vermes hinted at that when he described Gutierrez this way:
“If there’s a player that fits into our system, he’s one of those guys. He’s relentless in the way that he goes after the ball. He’s got a great engine (and) can go up and down the field. Really, really street smart on the field. Definitely a player that’s going to have an impact on our team.”
These really are two different questions, but I’m bunching them together because they will draw the same response. The way the roster has been constructed this offseason hints that Sporting KC could tweak its playing style. I expect them to press more often, and while the 4-3-3 formation will remain the base, they could shift out of it from time to time based on matchups and game situations.
Vermes is usually upfront with things like this — I’m sure you remember him calling the team “SKC 2.0” last year before it had played a game — but when I asked him about these possibilities before preseason, he was tight-lipped, offering only, “You’ll have to wait and see.” The departure from his candidness could be a bit of a tell that some change is afoot.
That’s a really long-winded way of saying I don’t really know.
My personal opinion is that Diego Rubio is not the weakness he’s perceived to be. The conversation around strikers in MLS has started to resemble something along the conversations about quarterbacks in the NFL. (“Is he elite?”) Rubio isn’t one of the best 10 goal scorers in MLS. But he’s plenty capable, and keep in mind that he was coming off ACL surgery last year. This is his first preseason with the team.
Tutul Rahman of Pro Soccer USA wrote an interesting piece about MLS player value, and Rubio is included in it. I’d encourage you to read it. It’s backed by statistics. The guys from Talkin' Touches have also made good points about his worth.
Having said all of that, yes, Sporting KC is continuing its pursuit of a striker. If one isn’t signed by the end of 2018, consider me more than a tad surprised.
After eliminating the high-priced overseas acquisitions from contention here — because I don’t consider any of the three (Croizet, Gutierrez and Russell) to be under-the-radar players — the best option is Khiry Shelton. With only two strikers currently on the roster, both will have to play. Even if Diego Rubio starts, and signs suggest he will, Shelton will see some time.
Shelton struggled in his two years in New York City FC, but that could work in Sporting KC’s favor. He will be plenty motivated to make his second stop work, which played a factor in the offseason trade.
Shelton is one of the two or three fastest players on the Sporting KC roster and has quickly drawn praise from Vermes. At the very least, he will be an intriguing late-game option that this club didn’t possess last year.
From everything I’ve heard, the chances Kevin Ellis plays for Sporting KC in 2018 are virtually zero. Where will he end up? I have no idea. He had a trial with FC Dallas earlier this month, but that did not lead to an offer.
Unlikely. Team president Jake Reid has said he would like to see the season-ticket waiting list reach 10,000 before they consider stadium expansion. It’s not there yet.
Very. Thanks for the opportunity to close this out with a plug to Tuesday’s story.