The glimpse of Sporting Kansas City’s future appeared Wednesday in northern Utah, in the form of three teenagers integrated into a starting lineup averaging just 24.2 years in age.
A day earlier, tipping his hand, coach Peter Vermes had expressed an eagerness to see how a homegrown-heavy group would respond to the opportunity to commence the team’s U.S. Open Cup title defense. “A great experience,” he called it.
And a win, to boot.
Sporting KC defeated Real Salt Lake 2-0 on the road Wednesday, moving into the Open Cup’s Round of 16. The remaining bracket will be drawn Thursday.
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“These kids are going to get a lot of chances,” Vermes said in a phone interview. “Every chance is hopefully gonna be another step, and the players made some really good steps in the game. They were positive ones. So I’m happy about that.”
The first Sporting KC lineup in franchise history to feature three players shy of 20 years old allowed only two shots on goal, though it turned to a regular to open the scoring. Johnny Russell broke a scoreless tie two minutes after halftime, heading a pass from Kharlton Belmar. Russell, 28, has scored six goals across all competitions in his first season in Kansas City.
The two flipped roles to double the lead, Russell set up Belmar’s first goal in a Sporting KC uniform in the 74th minute. Adrian Zendejas made two saves for the shutout in his first start with the senior team.
With Vermes departing from his patented 4-3-3 formation, he placed Belmar up top with Russell sliding from the wing to an underneath forward.
“From Belmar’s perspective, his movement off the ball was really, really good. He put a lot of pressure on the two central defenders,” Vermes said. “He’s a powerful dude; he’s athletic; he’s strong. But at the same time, I think he’s got really good soccer instincts on the field. He was excellent.”
Those actions from the second half followed a timid start, perhaps reflective of the personnel. Both teams used an array of reserves for the match, with Sporting KC placing only three regulars into its starting lineup — Russell, midfielder Ilie Sanchez and captain Matt Besler, who faced his younger brother, Nick, a Real Salt Lake midfielder, for the first time.
Vermes offered 16-year-old Gianluca Busio his Sporting KC debut and added 18-year-old Jaylin Lindsey and 19-year-old Wan Kuzain into his starting group. Lindsey and Kuzain made their senior-team debuts within the past two weeks. Busio turned 16 only nine days ago.
At one point, after subbing Daniel Salloi into the match, Sporting KC had four homegrown players on the field, another first for the two-decade old franchise.
“It was great to see the young guys come in and play the way that they played,” Vermes said, adding, “We actually still played our system of play.”
The youth movement was an atypical maneuver for a club that has utilized its regulars in past Open Cup tournaments, a factor in lifting the trophy three times in the last six years. Sporting KC defeated the New York Red Bulls in the 2017 Open Cup final.
The congestion of the schedule factored into both teams’ lineups. Sporting KC is in the midst of three matches in seven days, and Real Salt Lake has a stretch of five games in 15 days. Sporting KC, in first place in the Western Conference, travels to face Portland on Saturday.