When Major League Soccer released the 2022 regular season schedule in December, Sporting Kansas City knew the first four weeks would prove challenging with three difficult road trips straight out of the gates.
Away to Atlanta, on turf in front of 65,000+ fans against one of the league's top-spending teams.
Away to Colorado, at altitude against the Western Conference's top team in 2021.
Away to Chicago, a wild card with high hopes after appointing a new manager in Ezra Hendrickson who brought a resume of success as a former MLS player and assistant coach (five MLS Cup trophies, five U.S. Open Cup trophies and four Supporters' Shield trophies).
Combined, Sporting had three all-time regular season wins at the three stadiums they would be visiting to kick off 2022.
But what Sporting Kansas City didn't know at the time was the rash of injuries the club would be dealt while trying to navigate the gauntlet.
Designated Players Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda underwent offseason knee surgeries. Midfielder Uri Rosell was injured in week one. Forwards Daniel Salloi and Khiry Shelton were injured in week two. Midfielder Felipe Hernandez and winger Johnny Russell were injured in week three.
By Saturday as Sporting fielded a makeshift 3-5-2 formation in a 3-1 loss at Chicago, Manager Peter Vermes was down six starters - including all three Designated Players and the team's top five scorers from a year ago - against a Fire side off to the team's best start in over a decade.
"There are different situations that you have to go through in a season," Vermes said postmatch. "Unfortunately, we're dealing with six guys being out. They’re regular starters. Sometimes you have to change up the team. Right now, that's what we have to deal with early.
There are a lot of games left but we have work to do. We’ll get there. I have no doubt that we have guys that are good enough and that we have staff and players that work hard to get better game after game."
Three players -- Cam Duke, Kortne Ford and Ben Sweat -- made their first starts of the season on Saturday for Sporting, who have now used 17 different starters in 2022. That's tied with the Seattle Sounders (1-2-0) and Montreal Impact (0-3-1) for second most in MLS, behind only the New England Revolution (1-2-1), as the other three teams have all rotated their rosters while participating in the Concacaf Champions League.
By contrast, the unbeaten Chicago Fire (2-0-2) started the same 11 players for the fourth straight match on Saturday.
Amidst it all, veteran defender Graham Zusi has played every minute for Sporting Kansas City this year and on Saturday surpassed longtime teammate Matt Besler to become the club's all-time leader in regular season minutes played.
Third on the chart is Roger Espinoza, who scored his first goal since the 2020 season in the 56th minute on Saturday.
In doing so, the 2008 MLS SuperDraft selection became the third oldest player to score a regular season goal for the club behind only Sporting Legends Preki and Mo Johnston.
In his 13th season, the two-time World Cup veteran now has 11 career regular season goals and 39 regular season assists - making him just the 13th player in team history to tally 50 combined regular season goals and assists for the club.
"I told everybody after the game that it's a very long season," Espinoza said. "I've been here with Sporting for a very long time in losing seasons in the beginning, but we were able to come back and finish first. This is just the beginning and we have got to keep working, and we have got to keep believing."
Espinoza's goal capped off an impressive 19-pass sequence. Nine different Sporting KC players were involved in the buildup, which spanned 52 seconds of uninterrupted possession.
"We're a team that likes to possess the ball and there were times when we did that. We needed more of that," Espinoza said. "When we kept the ball, we created some chances and that was one of the reasons why the goal came."
The scoring sequence began with midfielder Remi Walter winning possession for Sporting Kansas City just inside midfield - one of 15 recoveries he made against Chicago, which were most of any field player in the league on Saturday.
The versatile Frenchman leads all MLS players this season with 45 recoveries and, as a team, Sporting leads the league with 131 recoveries in the opponent's half.
Saturday's loss was Sporting's fifth straight road defeat spanning back to last Halloween, a streak that matches the team's longest in Major League Soccer's non-shootout era (2000-present).
Sporting KC's Longest Road Losing Streaks
(regular season matches from 2000-present)
Five matches from 8/2/08 to 9/27/08
Five matches from 10/10/09 to 5/29/10
Five matches from 4/16/11 to 5/21/11
Five matches from 8/14/19 to 10/6/19
Five matches from 10/31/21 to present
After playing Chicago in a rematch of the 2000 MLS Cup, Sporting Kansas City will now return home to host first-place Real Salt Lake in a rematch of the 2013 MLS Cup. Kick off is set for 6 p.m. CT next Saturday at Children's Mercy Park and tickets are available online at SeatGeek.com.
"Our expectations are to win and to make the playoffs so that hasn't changed," Espinoza said. "You lose some games and you win some. The most important thing is that we keep working hard and have the same expectations to make it where we want to be at the end of the season, and that's the playoffs."