The offseason spanned just 83 days, the shortest in Sporting Kansas City history. That’s twice as brief as the Royals’ and nearly three times as concise as what awaits the Chiefs.
Sporting KC will open its 2019 schedule Thursday with a home match against Deportivo Toluca (Mexico) in the CONCACAF Champions League. The MLS regular season begins March 3, after a return trip to Toluca next week.
In other words, there’s a lot happening in 2019. Here’s how you can expect it all to unfold.
1. Sporting KC will own the West (again).
Children’s Mercy Park went four years without seeing the MLS playoffs before they finally returned last fall.
A shorter break awaits.
In the weaker conference, Sporting KC will repeat as the Western Conference regular-season winners, its depth proving valuable with a new schedule that requires it.
2. The U.S. Open Cup run will be longer than the CONCACAF Champions League run.
A lot longer.
The deck is stacked against Sporting KC in the Champions League. Toluca isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, winless in its last five, but there’s something to be said for being months into your season as opposed to playing on opening day. Remember last year’s Sporting KC opener? That dud against New York City FC?
Sporting KC likely needs a multi-goal victory Thursday to have a real chance, because the final leg of the series takes place at an elevation of 8,750 feet in Mexico against a good club in a difficult place to play. Just don’t see it happening.
As for the U.S. Open Cup, given its emphasis on improving depth over the last two years, look for Sporting KC to make a deep run into the semifinals, if not further. It has the personnel for it.
3. Key players will see their minutes shrink, and no one will start all 34 MLS games.
It would be a surprise to see more than one or two players start more than 30, in fact.
Graham Zusi and Ilie Sanchez were two of four players to never leave the field in MLS action last year, seeing all 3,060 minutes across 34 games.
Those days are gone. The league has condensed its schedule into a shorter window this year, and the effect in Kansas City will be a lineup that sees regular rotation. Add to that, Sporting KC is playing in three competitions this season — MLS, Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup.
4. Daniel Salloi will lead the team in goals.
The guy just keeps getting better. Salloi scored 11 last year in 26 starts. He should see similar minutes in 2019, mostly on the left wing, but he could also see occasional time at striker.
Krisztian Nemeth is due for a bounce-back year and a lot of minutes, but Salloi remains as clinical of a finisher as anyone of the roster. Sporting KC’s possession system is designed to get the wings heavily involved. It all points to a big season for the 22-year-old forward.
5. Sporting KC will not have a player finish in the top 20 in MLS in goals scored.
That’s verbatim from what was written in this piece last year.
It’s apt again. Sporting KC broke a franchise record for goals in 2018, but Salloi ranked as its best scorer, just 25th in the league. The scoring-by-committee approach returns.
6. Sporting KC will miss Diego Rubio and Ike Opara.
Mostly the podcast, of course. Jokes aside, Opara and Rubio were major contributors in 2018, and it seems their replacements will be in-house.
That’s a risk. Opara was the MLS defender of the year in 2017. Sporting KC has no replica for his athleticism and speed alongside captain Matt Besler — traits that are vital in preventing counter-attacks when Sporting KC pushes numbers forward.
Rubio scored eight goals in only 781 minutes. I get it — he’s not an ideal fit for the pace Sporting KC wants to play. But the production can’t be argued. He scored four times as a sub. His stretch in August bailed the club out of a five-match winless streak.
7. Kelyn Rowe will have a career year.
Rowe, the return package in the three-way trade involving Rubio, has been the talk of training camp. He had just one goal and two assists in New England last season, but he projects to be a major part of the midfield rotation. His career-best year came in 2013, when he had seven goals and eight assists. Look for that type of production once more.
8. The teenagers will play.
Homegrown products Gianluca Busio (16) and Jaylin Lindsey (18) made their MLS debuts last year, arriving perhaps earlier than expected. They will both factor into the rotation this year, playing at least five games each.
9. Sporting KC will lose a player in the summer window.
Dom Dwyer, Benny Feilhaber, Ike Opara, Diego Rubio ...
Have we learned nothing?
Peter Vermes is willing to trade or transfer big players if it makes sense for the long-term good of the team. Well, with the development of academy players — Busio and Lindsey figure to be playing in World Cups this summer — there will be interest in young guys on the roster. Sporting KC has enough depth to move a player or two for finances, a click in the model that has sustained the club’s long-term success.
10. Sporting KC won’t factor in the end-of-year awards.
The strength of Sporting KC is its relative lack of weakness. The roster is strong and deep everywhere. But star power? Not really. Zusi and Besler are all-star caliber, sure. Tim Melia has won a goalkeeper of the year honor. But for the second straight season, Sporting KC players will be left out of the mix for the league’s year-end honors.