The grind of Sporting Kansas City’s season arrived early with effects that have materialized often. But at last, the year’s longest hiatus from MLS play has arrived.
If they want to take advantage of it.
It’s a mental break from the slump responsible for the Western Conference standing.
If they want it.
A physical layoff from the repercussions of early-season schedule congestion.
If they want it.
Because there is a catch to all of this. Although 16 days separate MLS matches this month, Sporting KC is scheduled to commence a U.S. Open Cup run Wednesday at Minnesota United.
It’s a tournament MLS teams often approach differently. Some play a “B” lineup, providing a chance for younger players to see the field. Some mix in those reserves with starters. And some fully go for it.
Sporting coach Peter Vermes? Well, you probably guessed it.
“We’re going to play,” he said. “We’re going to try to win.”
Two games shy of the season’s midpoint, Sporting KC sits in 10th place in the West. This MLS break supplies an opportunity to hit the reset button on a season that has spiraled. To rest up for the second half of the year.
Vermes doesn’t see it that way, nor does he view his team as being in need of such a reset. His explanation: The approach to the lineup derives more from the current schedule demands. Sporting KC last played Friday, offering enough time to recover for a Wednesday match. If it loses the match, the team would still enjoy a 10-day hiatus. Even if it wins, the next Open Cup match is a week away.
“The (starters) would need a breather if we’re playing multiple games in a week or every three days, but we’re not doing that here. We don’t have that fixture congestion,” Vermes said. “If we advance and move forward, that could become a problem (later in the tournament), but if that happens, hopefully by then, I have some more guys back.”
The club’s inclusion in a previous season-interrupting tournament — the CONCACAF Champions League — took a toll on Vermes’ players. The injury list grew. Confidence dwindled.
Asked if the CCL consequences would affect his lineup Wednesday, Vermes said, “In this game, it doesn’t, because of the time off coming in. It doesn’t worry me for this game.”
There were some factors in the CCL tournament that make it unique from Wednesday’s match, he said — CCL required playing three games in a week, and Sporting competed against teams deeper into their season.
On Wednesday, Sporting KC’s long-term injuries (Roger Espinoza, Erik Hurtado, Jaylin Lindsey and Rodney Wallace) and international absences (Johnny Russell, Botond Barath, Nicolas Hasler and Krisztian Nemeth) will limit the amount of rotation available.
But here are some options at Vermes’ disposal in the Open Cup:
• Start Jimmy Medranda. He has played only 14 minutes since returning from a yearlong knee injury last month. The long-term plan is to have Medranda be a significant factor down the stretch. If the short-term hurdle is fitness, what better way to improve his fitness than to play him?
• Get Daniel Salloi right. After leading the team in scoring in 2018, Salloi does not even have a shot on goal in 2019. He was benched Friday in Toronto for defensive reasons. But he needs to be part of the second-half solution, not absent from it. Even if you’re unhappy with what he provided Friday, start Salloi and play him deep into the second half. Get him back to form.
• Rest Matt Besler. A hamstring injury sidelined Besler for a month; then, after a brief return, it re-emerged. It would be senseless to rush him back for the Open Cup. Sitting Besler now offer the potential for a healthy stalwart on the back line for the second half of the season.
• Play Gianluca Busio and rest Felipe Gutierrez. To be clear, there’s no injury here. But Sporting has asked a lot of Gutierrez this season. His 1,230 minutes lead all outfield players. And Busio, 17, needs the experience to continue his fast-track progression.
• Play Adrian Zendejas and rest Tim Melia. See above. With the addition of CCL, Melia has played 1,710 minutes in three months. That’s a lot. He stays in elite shape, but a physical and mental break could be beneficial. And Zendejas, 23, deserves the early round(s) of the tournament, which he received a year ago.
Regardless of who is playing, Vermes is going to remain steadfast in his expectations. But recent history suggests Sporting KC will eventually need to make a choice — Open Cup or MLS play — even if the timing of the initial match doesn’t demand that it’s made now. In its last two Open Cup championship runs (2017 and 2015), the team did not win a playoff match in either season.
Sure, advancement in both is ideal. But it’s not often realistic.