The fluctuation of the 2016 season impelled Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes to tinker with his offensive and defensive lineups.
But the midfield offered something of a contrast. Roger Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber and Soni Mustivar each finished in the top-five in games started for the club.
All three will return, though a change could arrive in the starting lineup Saturday, when Sporting KC opens the 2017 season at 6 p.m. against D.C. United.
After looking at Sporting’s offense Tuesday, The Star breaks down the team’s midfield ahead of the season opener. We will analyze the defense on Thursday.
More than one-third of the Sporting Kansas City roster was acquired in the past four months. Even so, perhaps the most significant move the team made this offseason was ensuring the return of one of its own.
Sporting KC gave attacking midfielder Benny Feilhaber a two-year contract, and, as he told The Star, his return was far from a guarantee.
Over the past two seasons, Feilhaber has 17 goals and 28 assists in Kansas City. He is joined in the center of the park by Roger Espinoza — who took over the captaincy role a year ago — to form a formidable midfield that has no shortage of in-house experience.
The newcomers across all three lines have received the typical preseason praise, but none have garnered approval more quickly than defensive midfielder Ilie Sanchez.
From Feilhaber: “Ilie Sanchez is going to change our team and how we play. He brings a calmness to that defensive midfield role. He’s able to get the ball from the backs and initiate the attack without me or Roger or anybody else having to go deep into the midfield. That’s going to make a difference for us in possession and the quality of our buildup.”
Sanchez, 26, joined Sporting KC in January after eight years professionally in Spain and Germany. The signs point toward him starting opening weekend in a spot primarily occupied by Soni Mustivar the past two seasons.
Under the radar
Although Sporting KC purposefully supplemented the second and third tiers of its depth chart, a big question remains: Who could fill in for Feilhaber and Espinoza if needed?
During the preseason, Sporting KC moved Jimmy Medranda to the midfield in an attempt to solve that dilemma while also furthering his development. Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes says Medranda will still be an option on the back line — where he played last season — or even as a winger in a late-game substitute role, but there are many within the team who believe his brightest future is in the midfield. The 2017 season will determine whether the move sticks.
Benny Feilhaber (attacking midfielder), Roger Espinoza (central midfielder), Ilie Sanchez (defensive midfielder)