Over the course of the still-early 2020 MLS regular season, the lion’s share of praise for Sporting Kansas City has been showered on its free-scoring offense.
Spearheaded by the likes of Alan Pulido, Khiry Shelton, Johnny Russell and Gerso Fernandes, Sporting ranks second in MLS with 13 goals scored—the most through the first five games of a regular season in club history. Pulido, Shelton and fellow newcomer Gadi Kinda have all garnered headlines, either in early March before the COVID-19 pandemic or more recently at the MLS is Back Tournament in Walt Disney World.
However, a closer look at several defensive numbers would suggest that Manager Peter Vermes’ side has also begun brightly along the backline. Sporting is one of just five MLS clubs with two clean sheets and five or fewer goals conceded in the regular season. They have allowed a miserly 2.6 shots on target per game, the fewest in MLS, while their eight total shots faced per game are second-fewest.
On an individual level, only two Sporting players have featured in all 450 minutes of regular season action thus far. One is Graham Zusi, a seven-time MLS All-Star and one of the most accomplished players to wear a Sporting uniform.
The other is a 28-year-old Croatian center back who entered the year as a key addition for a Sporting defense that leaked 67 goals in 2019.
Enter Roberto Punec, who signed for the club last December after logging upwards of 300 appearances across 12 professional seasons in Croatia, Israel and Germany. The European arrived in Kansas City after spending two and a half seasons with Croatian first-division club HNK Rijeka, where he won the 2019 Croatian Cup.
If Sporting keeps momentum rolling after a strong start—they occupy first place in the West with 12 points and a 4-1-0 record—more silverware could be in store for Puncec here in the U.S.
In addition to starting and playing every minute of every match this season, Puncec leads the team with an 86.4% passing accuracy (minimum 50 passes completed) and three blocks. He ranks second on the team in clearances (13) and interceptions (7) behind captain Matt Besler.
Another highlight of Puncec’s campaign came 17 minutes into his MLS debut, when he assisted Pulido’s opening goal in a 3-1 victory at Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Feb. 29. It marked the first time since 1996 that Sporting’s opening goal of a regular season was scored and assisted by a pair of debutants.
Seven days later, Puncec helped goalkeeper Tim Melia record his team-record 46th career regular season shutout in a 4-0 defeat of the Houston Dynamo at Children’s Mercy Park. Two more clean sheets followed in the MLS is Back Tournament—a 2-0 group stage win over Real Salt Lake on July 22 and a shootout victory against Vancouver that proceeded a scoreless draw on July 26.
Puncec and Sporting will look to keep hold of first place when the club’s regular season campaign continues Aug. 21 at second-place Minnesota United FC. Sporting released the schedule for its next six matches on Saturday—a slate that includes three home fixtures at Children’s Mercy Park that will be held at a reduced capacity of 14% with numerous safety protocols in place.
MLS announced Saturday that the 2020 regular season will span 23 total games and end with Decision Day on Nov. 8. The Audi MLS Cup Playoffs will then begin on Nov. 20 and culminate with the 25th MLS Cup on Dec. 12.