With Sporting Kansas City in the midst of a bye week, coach Peter Vermes gave his players three days off, and he called it a much-needed break from the game. A physical rest. And a mental one, too.
The club is enduring its first three-game losing streak of the season. It returns to action Wednesday with a match in Portland before traveling across the country to face Orlando City SC on Sept. 13.
With that in mind, let’s get to the questions.
For the second straight season, injuries have taken their toll on Sporting Kansas City during the stretch run of the season. The club is without Soni Mustivar (though his return is nearing), Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara. Those are three key figures, and the latter two sustained long-term injuries.
So what can Sporting KC reasonably expect from Espinoza and Opara in the postseason in November? (And let’s point out the obvious here: Nobody is assuming Sporting KC is a lock to make the playoffs.)
The plan calls for both of them to return to the field, but integrating them back into the system is an entirely different question. That takes time.
Espinoza’s goal is still to be ready for the postseason, which starts Oct. 28, though bouncing back from a serious foot injury and making an immediate impact in a playoff game is a lot to ask.
Opara has started jogging and doing side work during training sessions with an eye toward making it back from an Achilles’ tendon injury this season. He hasn’t played since April, and my sense is he still has a long way to go before he’s ready for game action. If Opara does return this season, a contribution off the bench is more realistic than a starting spot alongside Matt Besler in the center of the defense.
So, getting back to the question, I’ll go with Melia-Myers-Ellis-Besler-Sinovic-Mustivar-Espinoza-Feilhaber-Zusi-Dwyer-Nemeth as the ideal starting XI in November.
Anibaba has returned to practice as a full participant. He will likely travel to Portland on Wednesday, but it’s unlikely he’s 90-minutes fit.
I’ll answer this is two parts.
Part 1: First of all, Matt Besler, who is currently with the U.S. men’s national team, isn’t a sure-bet to miss Wednesday’s Sporting KC match in Portland. Besler could rejoin Sporting KC after Friday’s national-team game against Peru rather than staying with the U.S. for its match Tuesday against Brazil.
But if he does miss the game next week, that’s an awfully good question, and there isn’t a good answer. I asked Vermes on Thursday who his options are for center back, and he simply replied, “Kevin Ellis.” That was it. My guess is Anibaba will start there if Besler is gone, but as I just mentioned, he’s not considered 90-minutes fit. Amobi Okugo, another option there, isn’t expected to be back from a knee injury. We saw Benny Feilhaber serve as a late-game center back earlier this season. Maybe that’s Plan B. And maybe they need Plan B.
Part 2: While many of the team’s recent defensive struggles (13 goals allowed over the past four matches) have been blamed on the absence of defensive midfielder Soni Mustivar, the injury to midfielder Roger Espinoza certainly didn’t help anything. Espinoza isn’t the flashiest player on the roster, but he’s the club’s highest paid one for a reason. It’s just that much of what he does goes unnoticed. As the guys from the Talkin’ Touches podcast* and I discussed at Sporting Park before a recent match, he’s such a central figure in much of what they do, especially the transitional moments from offense to defense and vice versa. There just isn’t a like-for-like replacement for Espinoza on the roster.
*This includes former Full 90 resident Charles Gooch, a major supporter of Roger Espinoza.
The losing-streak issues have been on the defensive side. Sticking Graham Zusi back in the midfield in favor of adding another attacking option to the mix isn’t going to solve that.
Sporting Kansas City takes the U.S. Open Cup competition about as seriously as any club in the league, but let’s face it: Missing the MLS playoffs after a red-hot first half of the season wouldn’t sit well with anyone, even if the team wins the Open Cup.
To reach Sam McDowell, call 816-234-4869 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcDowell11. Tap here to download The Star’s free Extra Time KC soccer app for iOS and Android devices.