After finishing near the top of the Western Conference regular season table, Sporting Kansas City will look to punctuate a thrilling 2021 campaign by winning silverware on Major League Soccer's greatest stage. The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs will see Sporting take the field with aspirations of hoisting the club's third MLS Cup title.
The first step for third-seeded Sporting is a Round One showdown with the No. 6 seed Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Saturday afternoon at Children's Mercy Park. Kickoff is slated for 4 p.m. CT with live coverage on Bally Sports Kansas City, Bally Sports Midwest Plus, UniMas and TUDN. Tickets for the highly anticipated encounter are available at SeatGeek.com.
In the buildup to Saturday, SportingKC.com will deliver a comprehensive playoff preview presented by Audi, examining the prevalent storylines surrounding Manager Peter Vermes' side and generating excitement for what lies ahead. In the space below, we examine Sporting's balanced midfield.
After previewing Sporting Kansas City’s defense, it is time to move up the pitch and look at the midfield.
Excluding 19-year-old wunderkind Gianluca Busio, who joined Italian side Venezia in a mid-season transfer, Sporting rotated six different midfielders in and out of the lineup. Playing the traditional three-midfield set with a holding pivot and two advanced players, Sporting’s midfield kept the game flowing all year. Sporting led the MLS in passes, successful passes and passing accuracy as the midfield consistently controlled the pace of play.
The midfield contributed 11 goals and 14 assists to Sporting’s 58 total goals, the second-most in MLS. The pinpoint passing and quick transition helped Sporting turn defense into offense all season long.
The recap below highlights the key contributions each individual midfielder has had on Sporting’s 2021 season.
Twelve seasons in and Roger Espinoza continues to produce for Sporting. There is just no quit in the former Honduran international, as he made 25 interceptions and completed 81.4% of his own passes. At 35-years-old, Espinoza is the oldest Sporting midfielder but managed to play the second-most minutes. With a few Sporting midfielders dropping back to fill defender roles, Espinoza played more minutes in the midfield than any Sporting player this season. He was an absolute force in the center of the park and will look to bring his trademark energy into the playoffs.
In his second season with the club, Gadi Kinda picked up right where he left off. Starting 24 of 26 appearances, Kinda was an absolute menace in the midfield and even stepped into the false 9 role at times. Kinda continued to pester defenses, leading all Sporting midfielders with five goals. He was also tied for the team lead with eight regular season assists. His play turned heads on the international stage as he earned his first Israeli senior team selection and score his first international goal in a friendly against Montenegro on June 5. In the playoffs, Kinda will join the attack whenever the opportunity presents itself.
The first of two off-season signings from France, Remi Walter was the most integral newcomer in the Sporting midfield. Making 28 appearances and 23 starts, Walter earned the title of club Newcomer of the Year for his control in the midfield. On two separate occasions, the Frenchman completed 100% of his passes in a match and earned Team of the Week honors twice as well. Walter’s first career MLS goal could not have come at a better time, as it helped lift Sporting past Western Conference foes Seattle Sounders FC and secure a berth in the 2021 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. The calm, cool and collected midfielder will look to continue his regular season success and live up to the title of Sporting KC Newcomer of the Year.
We already dove into Ilie’s role on Sporting’s backline, but his contributions in the midfield deserve the credit as well. Sporting’s No. 6 made six appearances in his usual position on the field. As the holding mid, Ilie controlled the pace of play and was the link between the backline and the attack. In his six starts in the midfield, Sporting won four of those matches. With Nicolas Isimat-Mirin available for selection, Ilie could move back into the defensive midfielder spot as he works box to box throughout the playoffs.
One of Sporting’s more promising midfielders, 20-year-old Cam Duke made 16 appearances and six starts for Sporting in his third year on the first team. His first career MLS goal came on July 25 in the form of a game-sealing volley against Seattle. He netted Sporting’s lone goal in the Leagues Cup match on Aug. 10 and added his second MLS goal of the season in a 4-0 victory on Sept. 15 against Minnesota United FC. With incredible pace and a mature soccer mind beyond his years, Duke is a solid midfield option as Sporting begins the playoffs.
The newest addition to the club, Jose Mauri joined the team on Aug. 5 after Busio transferred to Venezia in Italy’s Serie A. As a former Serie A player himself, Mauri brings loads of experience to an already deep Sporting midfield. He scored Sporting’s fastest goal of the season, netting the first of two goals in a 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire on Sept. 11. Mauri made nine total appearances for Sporting in 2021 and will contribute to his new club in the playoffs any way he can.