The youth movement is here.
Well, in part.
On Sunday evening at Children’s Mercy Park, Sporting Kansas City finished a 4-1 victory against Minnesota with three homegrown players on the field, those three averaging 19.3 years in age. It’s just one step in the long-term vision of coach Peter Vermes, who has publicized a plan to field a lineup comprised solely of homegrown talent.
He might want to stick with it this week. He might have to stick with it this week.
Sporting KC begins its U.S. Open Cup championship defense with a trip to Real Salt Lake at 9 p.m. Wednesday, the middle of three matches in a seven-day span. Six veterans reside on the injury list.
Those two factors alone should introduce the opportunity to play the kids. But they won’t be the only factors.
“They can play,” Vermes said Tuesday in a phone conversation from New York, where he visited for league meetings this week. “I wouldn’t play those guys unless I thought they were ready. We’ll take everything into account, but we’re going to put a group out there that we think can get us the result.”
Seven years ago, as the franchise re-branded from the Kansas City Wizards to Sporting KC, Vermes considered championships a key component of the sustained viability of soccer in this city. In turn, the team has won three of the past six Open Cup tournaments, the effect of a staff that conveys the importance of the event with first-rate lineups every time out.
But the playoff results haven’t followed. In each of the past three Open Cup championship summers (2017, 2015, 2012), Sporting KC was bounced in the initial round of the MLS playoffs.
Coincidence? Perhaps. But Sporting KC has faltered down the stretch of the past few seasons after advancing farther than most — or all —of its counterparts in the Open Cup. Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza downplayed the relation between the two last winter, saying they felt as fresh at the end of 2017 as they had in years, despite five matches in the Open Cup mixed into the summer months.
A younger lineup Wednesday could offer the veterans a chance to rest for the back half of the season. Several MLS teams treat the Open Cup in that manner. Although that has rarely been a motivating factor when Vermes fills out a lineup, there’s a different element to 2018.
The homegrown kids appear ready.
Daniel Salloi, 21, has four goals and four assists in 12 starts. Wan Kuzain, 19, scored Sunday in his second MLS match and completed 31 of 32 passes after starter Yohan Croizet departed with a hamstring injury. Jaylin Lindsey, 18, made his MLS debut Sunday after starter Seth Sinovic was injured.
Lindsey and Kuzain could see their first career starts with Sporting KC on Wednesday. Croizet and Sinovic will miss the match, though their injuries are considered minor. Nevertheless, that could place three homegrown players in the starting lineup in Utah. And another, 16-year-old Gianluca Busio, is knocking on the door.
Sporting KC has never put four homegrown players on the field in one match.
“I don’t think we’ve ever gone into this competition thinking, ‘This is an opportunity for young guys to get games,’” Sporting KC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin said. “We can reserve that opportunity for Swope Park so that when they get here, they’re ready.
“But at the end of the day, (Sunday) was an example of guys being ready to contribute in a meaningful way. That means the system is working.”