Audi Playoff Preview 5

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 provide a preview of Sporting's unsung backline.

After looking at Sporting Kansas City’s best playoff moments and learning how to watch the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, it is time to look at the 2021 team starting with the defense.

For years, Manager Peter Vermes has focused on defensive solidarity and keeping teams off the scoreboard. The year 2021 was no different. The ever-changing backline conceded the third-fewest goals in the Western Conference en route to the club’s 10th playoff appearance in 11 seasons.

Nine different defenders and two goalkeepers started under Vermes. There were 10 different combinations on the backline and one formation change. Sporting placed second in the league in total possession, holding the ball 55.2% of the time over the course of the season. The defense winning balls and retaining possession in the defensive third played a significant role in Sporting’s success.

The recap below dives into the role that the defenders and goalkeepers played in Sporting’s successful 2021 MLS regular season.

GK Tim Melia

It was another solid season for Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia, who appeared in 14 Sporting wins and posted seven clean sheets. Melia conceded just 33 goals on the year but was expected to give up 46.44 based on the MLS’ expected goal (xGA) metric. His 13.44 xGA difference ranks second in the league. This will be the sixth playoffs Melia has held down the goal for Sporting.

GK John Pulskamp

With Melia coming off an injury at the start of the season, John Pulskamp stepped up in a major way at the start of the year by playing in Sporting’s first five matches. The 20-year-old also answered the call late in the season with Melia serving a one-match suspension. Pulskamp’s clean sheet against the LA Galaxy on Oct. 27 earned Sporting a home playoff match and he became the youngest keeper in club history to record a shutout.

CB Andreu Fontas

It was a record-setting season for Sporting KC Defensive Player of the Year Andreu Fontas. In his fourth season with the club, Fontas led the team in minutes played and was the anchor of the backline. He set MLS single-season highs in touches (3,178), passes (2,818) and passes successful (2,515). He led the club in interceptions with 55 and started in all eight of Sporting’s clean sheet performances.

LB Luis Martins

While Fontas was the anchor for the center backs, Luis Martins played that role for the outside backs. The only Sporting player to appear in all 34 MLS regular season matches, Martins provided support in all three areas in the field. On the backline, he led all defenders in duels. In the middle of the field, he created chances and launched counterattacks. In the attack, he assisted on four goals and scored one for himself.

RB Graham Zusi

The Sporting KC player with the most playoff experience, Graham Zusi keeps aging like a fine wine. This year, the 2013 MLS Cup Champion played in 26 matches, led all Sporting defenders with five assists and led the team in successful crosses with 28 on the season. The all-time Sporting KC playoff assists leader also surpassed 25,000 minutes played, becoming one of nine players to do so with one club.

CB Ilie Sanchez

Although Ilie Sanchez is traditionally a holding midfielder, the story of Sporting’s 2021 defense cannot be told without mentioning the Spaniard. Ilie started the third-most matches on Sporting’s backline, playing alongside Fontas. With Ilie starting in central defense, Sporting would post 11 wins, six losses and four draws. The Neal and Jeanne Patterson Humanitarian of the Year stepped up for the club in a big way, not just by playing in unfamiliar territory but by thriving in uncharted waters.

CB Nicolas Isimat-Mirin

Nicolas Isimat-Mirin signed with Sporting back in February and made an immediate impact, starting in the first two matches of the season. A pair of hamstring injuries kept Isimat off the pitch for most of 2021 but the Frenchmen battled back every chance he got. The former UEFA Champions League player made 13 appearances in his first season with Sporting and started in three of Sporting’s final four matches, meaning he is ready to go for the playoffs.

RB Jaylin Lindsey

A Sporting KC Academy product and homegrown talent, Jaylin Lindsey started the 2021 MLS regular season in form. He scored his first career MLS goal on May 22 in a 3-1 Sporting win over San Jose Earthquakes and added a second goal on June 19 at the Portland Timbers. After making 14 appearances and adding an assist for the club, Lindsey suffered a hamstring injury that has kept him sidelined since the Aug. 10 Leagues Cup match.

CB Kaveh Rad

Kaveh Rad started 2021 on a USL contract, but after a strong performance in the preseason he earned an MLS Homegrown contract at just 19-years-old. Rad made his first MLS start on May 1 at Real Salt Lake and earned his first win as a starter on May 22 in the win against San Jose.

CB Roberto Puncec

Roberto Puncec started in two matches for Sporting this season. The 2020 Sporting KC Defender of the Year posted one win and one draw in his two starts, completing 87.1% of his passes. He also has playoff experience, having started in both postseason matches for the club last year.

LB Amadou Dia

Amadou Dia made four appearances for Sporting during the regular season. Like Puncec, Dia is well familiar with the playoff spectacle, having participated in two postseasons with the club in 2015 and 2020.