In all fairness, 2020 wasn’t completely a lost cause.
Take Sporting Kansas City, for example. After a forgetful 2019 MLS campaign, Manager Peter Vermes’ side bounced back into title contention with a first-place finish in the Western Conference and rode impressive performances from several players as one of Major League Soccer’s most entertaining teams.
But let’s be honest: for all intents and purposes, 2020 was rough. Such is the reality when a pandemic turns the world upside down.
The widespread effects of COVID-19 will be felt well into the future, but as the calendar turns to 2021—and with a coronavirus vaccine just around the corner—there is legitimate reason to feel hope and excitement. It may not happen overnight, but 2021 has widely been tabbed as a steady return to sweet normalcy.
With that in mind, 2021 projects to be a momentous year for MLS and for Sporting Kansas City.
Amidst the doldrums of recent times, why should you feel excited for what is to come? Glad you asked. In the space below, we list 21 soccer-centric things to look forward to over the next 12 months. Let’s raise a glass to the new year and dive right in.
1. More fans in the stands
Empty stadiums and reduced-capacity crowds were the name of the game in 2020, and understandably so. As society starts to turn the corner, however, the entire sports world will be relishing the possibility of larger crowds in 2021. In all likelihood, venues will make gradual climbs in capacity with health and safety always at the forefront.
What we do know is this: whenever the times comes, a jam-packed Children’s Mercy Park will make for one of the most poignant and cherished moments in Sporting history.
2. A full regular season
MLS clubs played anywhere between 18 and 23 matches in 2020. If all goes to plan, that number will return to the standard 34 this year—followed, of course, by the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. The more games, the better. Quite simple.
3. Momentum from 2020
Last season may not have ended how Sporting wanted, but Vermes’ men will have no shortage of momentum heading into 2021. After all, Sporting pulled off the greatest year-over-year turnaround in MLS history in 2020, jumping from 22nd to third in the Supporters’ Shield table, and finished with a team-record 1.86 points per game on a 12-6-3 record. With four first-place conference finishes since 2011, Vermes and Co. will look to go a step further this year by adding to the club’s already illustrious trophy cabinet.
4. Year 2 of Alan Pulido
When he was on the field, Mexican striker Alan Pulido was simply one of the best players in MLS last year. Sporting’s club-record signing hit team-highs with seven goals and five assists despite making just 14 appearances due to injuries, international duty and the shortened match schedule. Imagine what Pulido might be able to do over the course of 30-plus games?
5. The continued youth movement
The 2020 campaign saw several Sporting Kansas City youngsters make huge strides as integral first-team contributors. Gianluca Busio, Felipe Hernandez, Jaylin Lindsey and Cam Duke all left positive impressions throughout the year, and they’ll only continue to get better. Eyes should also be kept on fellow Academy products Tyler Freeman and Wilson Harris, a pair of talented attacking players who have plied their trade at the USL Championship level with Sporting KC II.
6. Remi Walter and other fresh faces
Sporting grabbed headlines in late December with the addition of 25-year-old French midfielder Remi Walter. The versatile Walter can play at the No. 8 or the No. 6 and boasts extensive experience in France’s top-flight Ligue 1. He also isn’t long removed from a decorated youth career in which he played alongside the likes of FIFA World Cup winners Thomas Lemar, Benjamin Pavard and Corentin Tolisso as well as current Premier League standouts Anthony Martial, Aymeric Laporte and Benjamin Mendy.
Walter was Sporting’s first marquee signing of the offseason. There could be a few more still to come.
7. The Academy pipeline
Over the last five seasons, Sporting has signed 10 Academy products to the club’s MLS roster. That number may grow in 2021, as the Sporting KC Academy continues to develop elite youth players at an impressive clip.
While we’re on the subject, we highly recommend checking out “The Academy,” an all-access docuseries from Audi and Bleacher Report that highlights the Sporting KC Academy and it’s pro player pathway.
8. A new primary jersey
An odd-numbered year means a new primary jersey for supporters to snap up. We’ll go out on a limb and guess that the new kit is Sporting Blue with some Dark Indigo.
9. Real and virtual fan events
The last 10 months have shown that clubs and supporters can connect in a number of different ways. While matches and watch parties in person can’t be beat, Sporting and MLS will continue to leverage video conferencing, live streaming, social media and other technology to create unique events and fan experiences.
10. Vermes climbing the ranks
What is Major League Soccer’s biggest crime? Perhaps the fact that Peter Vermes has never won an MLS Coach of the Year award. Nevertheless, PV will set out with intentions of adding to the four major championships he has won at the helm of Sporting. He currently ranks fifth in MLS history with 155 regular season wins as the league’s longest-tenured head coach, which gives him a realistic shot at supplanting Dominic Kinnear (170 wins) for fourth place.
11. The return of the Open Cup
Our hearts broke when the pandemic drew an end to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s 106-consecutive-year run of crowning a national champion. Good news? The Open Cup is back on the docket in 2021, and Sporting will look to make history as the first MLS team to win the tournament five times.
12. Possible participation in Leagues Cup
As the first-place team in the West, Sporting were unlucky not to receive a berth in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League. However, they stand a great chance of being admitted to the 2021 Leagues Cup, which will feature eights MLS clubs and eight Liga MX teams in a competition that will likely take place this summer.
13. Tons of international competitions
After COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the FIFA calendar in 2020, this year figures to serve up a scintillating slate of international tournaments. In addition to enjoying weekend after weekend of MLS action, fans will have the opportunity to feast upon numerous high-profile competitions involving national teams from across the globe.
- Concacaf Nations League: June (semifinal and final dates TBD)
- Concacaf Gold Cup: July 10 – Aug. 1
- UEFA Euro 2020: June 11 – July 11
- Copa America: June 11 – July 10
- Summer Olympics: July 21 – Aug. 7 (Concacaf qualifying from March 15-28)
- 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying: Dates in March, May, June, September, October and November
14. The KC 2026 World Cup bid
Will 2021 be the year that FIFA selects host cities for the 2026 World Cup? Although far from certain, it’s a distinct possibility. From a shortlist of 17 candidate host cities in the United States, FIFA will select only 10 to host matches for the highly anticipated 2026 event.
15. Continued rivalries
As one of the most competitive teams in the Western Conference, Sporting will square off with a number of other heavy hitters over the course of the season. A revamped schedule in 2020 prevented Sporting from facing the likes of Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers, LAFC and LA Galaxy. That will (hopefully) change in 2021. Fans can also look forward to continued regional rivalries with teams like Minnesota United FC, the Colorado Rapids, Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas.
16. New rivalries
We’re looking at you, Austin FC. The new Texas club will enter 2021 as Major League Soccer’s 27th team, and given its relative proximity to Kansas City, it’s likely that we’ll see Sporting and Austin square off at least once.
17. More star power in MLS
As MLS grows, so does the annual crop of influential transfers from abroad. In 2020, stars like Pulido, Lucas Zelarayan, Emanuel Reynoso and Robert Beric lit the league ablaze. Who will be the best newcomers of 2021? We’ll find out soon enough.
18. New stadiums in MLS
We’re looking specifically at the state of Ohio. FC Cincinnati and reigning MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew SC will ring in 2021 with new, state-of-the-art stadiums in their respective markets. Whether Sporting makes a trip to either venue remains to be seen, as both Cincinnati and Columbus compete in the Eastern Conference.
19. Year 6 of Sporting KC II
In its brief five-year history, Sporting Kansas City II has made quite an impact in the USL Championship. Crowned Western Conference champions in 2016 and 2017, Sporting KC has II zeroed in on player development over the last three seasons under head coach and former Sporting legend Paulo Nagamura.
Year after year, a number of young players shine for SKC II and use the platform as a bridge to the first team. Last year it was forward Wilson Harris. The year before it was midfielder Felipe Hernandez. Before that, Tyler Pasher, Adrian Zendejas, Kharlton Belmar and Wan Kuzain all took their opportunities in the USL Championship as a means of earning MLS contracts. Time will tell who’s next.
20. Another season of eMLS
Sporting announced last month that Kansas City native Alekzandur has returned as the club’s eMLS player for 2021. In addition to competing for the eMLS Cup, Alekzandur will participate in several other FIFA competitions as one of the best gamers in the world.
21. Major Anniversaries
This year marks the 25-year anniversary of Sporting’s inaugural 1996 MLS campaign as well as the 10-year anniversary of the team’s first season at world-class Children’s Mercy Park. You can bet that Sporting will celebrate both in style.