Sporting Kansas City youngsters Wan Kuzain, 19, and Jaylin Lindsey, 18, are a lot like any pair of teenagers. They hang out together, play FIFA, watch the World Cup — Lindsey is even bold enough to think Belgium will win the whole tournament.
But they’re also set apart from their peers. They play alongside World Cup veteran defenders like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi. They’ve also both been featured in starting lineups in front of sold-out crowds at Children’s Mercy Park.
The pair are two of four youngsters who have broken into the Sporting KC first team in the last two years, joined by forwards Daniel Salloi, 21, and Gianluca Busio, 16. Together, they’ve created a movement called "play the kids," an idea that seems to have stuck with Peter Vermes, as youngsters from the Sporting KC Academy and Swope Park Rangers are appearing more often with the first team.
The kids aren’t disappointing either. Sporting KC hasn’t lost a game since a 1-0 loss to the New England Revolution on April 28, going nine games undefeated since then. The quartet has combined for 22 appearances in that span, contributing eight goals and two assists.
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"It's a true honor to play at this level, for my age, right now. It's something that most kids my age aren't doing nowadays,” Lindsey said. “Three years ago, I was sitting here when I first got to the academy, I was watching these guys play on the first team. Now I'm playing with them and it's awesome, it's an amazing feeling.”
The influx of players coming through the academy system started with Salloi four years ago. He made the move to the United States from his native Hungary in 2014. Three years and several stints with the Swope Park Rangers and teams in Hungary later, Salloi had become part of the furniture of Peter Vermes’ squad, appearing in 22 games in the 2017 season.
His ascension through the ranks marked the first time a player had done so successfully in Sporting KC’s system, and ultimately gave hope to players like Kuzain and Lindsey.
“I think he was the first real role model to all the other kids that if you're good enough and if you work your way, then you'll get a chance,” Kuzain said. “And it's just really awesome to see that me, Jaylin and Busio are coming up, and hopefully we can inspire the next generation to hopefully one day get here.”
The pair are slowly becoming household names in Kansas City, but the progression doesn’t stop there.
“Each step from the academy, you want to prove yourself in the academy,” Kuzain continued, “then you go to Swope Park, you want to prove yourself as well, and now you're with the first team, of course you want to prove yourself against some of the best players in the MLS.”
Their focus now turns toward the veterans on the team. Players like Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara, who have the experience to take them to the next level.
“All the guys have helped. Even the guys in my position, they've always looked at me and helped me out — even if it's not their position,” Lindsey said. “I know they look at us and they invest in us, and they want us to probably be better than them someday.”
With Sporting KC atop the Western Conference by three points, it's likely that Vermes will continue to play the kids. And even if they don’t lift the MLS Cup this season, Sporting KC fans have a lot to look forward to in the future.