For the first time since match play was suspended March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Major League Soccer action will resume July 8 with the historic and unprecedented MLS is Back Tournament. This one-of-a-kind competition will see all 26 clubs descend on ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, marking the emphatic return of men's professional soccer in the United States after a near four-month hiatus.
As the opening match approaches, SportingKC.com is presenting a 20-day preview of the World-Cup style tournament from June 18 through July 7 called Countdown to MLS is Back presented by Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center.
Sporting Kansas City will kick off their Group D campaign on July 12 against rivals Minnesota United FC before facing the Colorado Rapids on July 17 and Real Salt Lake on July 22, with all three games shown live nationally on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app. To visit the series homepage as it expands, head to SportingKC.com/MLSisBack.
After getting reacquainted with Sporting's defense on Monday and midfield on Tuesday, our third and final stop on the positional tour spotlights a balanced attack that looked awfully impressive during the first two weeks of the regular season.
With a 3-1 road win over Vancouver and a 4-0 home victory over Houston under its belt, Sporting has scored three or more goals in each of their first two MLS matches for the second time ever. The first such occurrence came in 2000, when head coach Bob Gansler led the Wizards to a Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup double.
With that positive juju in mind, let's take a glance at the forwards Peter Vermes will have at his disposal next month in Orlando.
Gerso Fernandes: The 2019 season was one to forget for Sporting, but Gerso's contributions should not be forgotten. The speedy winger recorded seven goals and eight assists in all competitions as a consistent bright spot on the wing. Gerso came off the bench in Sporting's first two matches of 2020, providing an injection of pace and trickery, as evidenced by his brilliant assist to Erik Hurtado in Week 1.
Tyler Freeman: The 17-year-old Academy product spent most of his first professional season with Sporting KC II in 2019. Freeman is an enticing prospect and a U.S. youth national team regular.
Erik Hurtado: The 29-year-old kicked off 2020 in the best way he could have imagined, scoring against his former club in a win at Vancouver on Feb. 29. Hurtado is a high-energy center forward who presses well, making him a good fit for Vermes' system.
Alan Pulido: As Sporting's club-record signing and one of the league's biggest offseason acquisitions, expectations for Pulido were understandably high entering 2020. But boy, did he deliver during the first two weeks of the season. The 29-year-old Mexican scored in both wins over Vancouver and Houston and added an assist in an electric home opener on March 7, quickly endearing himself to the Children's Mercy Park faithful. Through Week 2, Pulido leads MLS with 76 high presses, a testament to his work rate as the first line of Sporting's defense. He also leads MLS forwards with a passing accuracy of 89.4 percent in the attacking half.
Johnny Russell: You could make a strong case that Johnny Russell was Sporting's best player over the course of 2018 and 2019 combined. The Scottish international earned Offensive Player of the Year honors in each of his first two seasons with the club, notching nine goals and 11 assists in all competitions last year after delivering 12 goals and 13 assists in his debut campaign. Russell's slaloming runs on the wing are simply a nightmare for opposing defenders.
Daniel Salloi: The Hungary-born Academy product led Sporting in 2018 with 16 goals across all competitions before seeing his production drop last year. He struck twice during the 2020 preseason, however, and appears poised for a bounce-back.
Khiry Shelton: Pulido may have garnered the early-season headlines, but arguably no player started more brightly, albeit under the radar, than Shelton. The versatile forward scored in the home opener against Houston, yet the advanced metrics tell an even bigger story: Shelton is tied for the league lead with seven chances created from open play, leads all forwards in duels won and ranks toward the top of MLS in sprints.