Why 2017 has been another special year for the Swope Park Rangers

Swope Park Rangers head coach Nikola Popovic

Almost two years ago to the day, Sporting Club unveiled the Swope Park Rangers as an expansion team in the United Soccer League.

As the USL affiliate of Sporting Kansas City, SPR would be closely integrated within Sporting Club’s short term and long-term strategic goals. At the forefront, this meant providing a pathway to the professional ranks for Sporting KC Academy players and a “proving ground” for aspiring MLS players or those on loan from Sporting KC.

After a fantastic inaugural season saw the Rangers advance to the USL Cup Final as Western Conference champions, another main objective was added to the docket. The concept of “vertical integration” would be employed at all levels of the organization, from Sporting KC all the way down to the Academy. Simply put, everything from playing style and formation to tactics and team values would be the same for Sporting KC, the Rangers and each Academy club.

With these overarching principles in mind, it’s safe to consider 2017 an overwhelming success for the Swope Park Rangers.

Guided by head coach Nikola Popovic, SPR has thrived in every single area the club was intended to serve heading into the season. Sporting KC Academy products have stepped into the professional spotlight. Multiple players have blossomed at the USL level and made the jump to MLS. Popovic has mirrored — almost to a tee — the playing style of Manager Peter Vermes and Sporting KC.

And to top it all off, the Rangers have finished near the summit of the Western Conference for the second straight year and appear capable of making another run at the USL Cup.

With a strong regular season in the books, the Rangers are now set to host Didier Drogba and Phoenix Rising FC in the USL Western Conference Quarterfinals on Saturday. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. CT at Swope Soccer Village, with tickets available at SeatGeek.com or at the venue box office on matchday. As Saturday approaches, we revisit the prevailing narratives that have characterized SPR’s 2017 campaign.

Academy in Action

The SPR roster boasts nine Sporting KC Academy products who have earned playing time in 2017. This contingent includes the likes of captain Christian Duke, dynamic winger Nansel Selbol and teenage midfielders Felipe Hernandez and Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal, all of whom have featured regularly throughout the year. Selbol, Hernandez, Kuzain and 17-year-old Max Rugova are prime examples of Academy stars making upward strides on the professional pathway.

Of the 31,680 combined minutes played on SPR’s squad, 23.3 percent of playing time (7,377 minutes) has come from former or current SKC Academy players. This crop has also accounted for 15 goals and 13 assists, with Selbol (9 goals, 2 assists) and Duke (2 goals, 7 assists) leading the way. Selbol, who marked his Sporting KC debut with a goal in the CONCACAF Champions League last October, is also the top goal scorer among USL players aged 20 and under.

Making the MLS Leap

This particular category can be viewed in two ways. First, 15 players currently under contract with Sporting KC have appeared in a USL match for the Rangers this season. This group is a mix of Sporting KC loanees (either short-term or long-term) as well as players who have earned MLS contracts since the start of 2017. Regardless of each player’s particular situation, SPR has provided a valuable outlet for first-team players seeking competitive minutes.

The 15 players under contract with Sporting KC have combined for nearly half of SPR’s available playing time (48.2 percent, 15,270 minutes) while amassing 25 goals and 15 assists.

The second positive under this umbrella? Since the end of May, four players have used SPR as a platform to excel on the field and earn MLS contracts for Sporting KC. This quartet includes defender Amer Didic, holding midfielder James Musa, creative midfielder Kevin Oliveira and forward Kharlton Belmar. That’s not to mention fullback/winger Tyler Pasher and goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas — two regular starters for SPR who inked contracts with Sporting KC at the end of 2016 — or 2017 MLS SuperDraft pick Colton Storm, who has also been a frequent inclusion on the team sheet.

Consider the achievements of the seven Sporting KC signings below, and it’s clear that SPR has become a breeding ground for eventual first-team performers.

  • Tyler Pasher (signed 12/2/16) — Has started 22 of 24 USL appearances, assisting three goals and ranking 3rd on SPR with 26 chances created. Made his MLS debut in May after featuring for Sporting KC in last season’s CONCACAF Champions League. Was named to the Canada senior national team in June.
  • Adrian Zendejas (signed 12/2/16) — Boasts a 22-4-5 record as a USL starter dating back to last season (including playoffs). Has eight shutouts and a 1.00 goals against average in 2017.
  • Colton Storm (signed 2/24/17) — Ranks 2nd on SPR in minutes (2,203) and starts (25). Has contributed one goal and three assists in his first professional season while on loan from Sporting KC.
  • Amer Didic (signed 5/31/17) — Has started 20 USL matches, leading the team with 112 clearances and 72 passes per 90 minutes. Was a 2016 USL All-League First Team selection and 2016 USL Defender of the Year finalist. Made three starts for Sporting KC in last season’s CONCACAF Champions League.
  • James Musa (signed 8/11/17) — Named SPR’s 2017 team MVP. Has played the full 90 minutes in all 21 USL starts. Made his MLS debut with a start at Seattle Sounders FC on Aug. 12, leading all players with 68 successful passes. Returned to the New Zealand Men’s National Team, earning two caps in September.
  • Kharlton Belmar (signed 9/15/17) — Leads SPR and ranks 6th in USL with 14 goals, including goals in each of his last five USL appearances. Made his U.S. Open Cup and MLS debuts in separate matches against the Houston Dynamo.
  • Kevin Oliveira (signed 9/15/17) — Has three goals, five assists and 25 chances created since returning from a long-term knee injury in April. Made his MLS debut on Sept. 16 before appearing in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final four days later. Earned his debut for Cape Verde in a World Cup qualifier earlier this month.

Vertical Integration: SKC 2.0

The table below says it all. Sporting KC and the Rangers pride themselves on a possession-oriented 4-3-3 approach, and anyone who has seen both teams play in 2017 can vouch that their playing styles are unmistakably similar. By dominating possession, SKC and SPR effectively limit goal scoring chances for opponents.

<strong>Sporting KC</strong>
<strong>Swope Park Rangers</strong>
510 (1st in MLS)
519 (1st in USL)
<strong>Passing accuracy</strong>
83.4% (1st in MLS)
83.0% (1st in USL
11 (2nd in West)
11 (2nd in West)

Success on the Field

It would have been a fine accomplishment if Popovic and SPR had accomplished all of the above but fallen short of the USL Cup Playoffs. But that’s not the case, and the standings speak volumes. In addition to cultivating SKC Academy talent, grooming MLS hopefuls and implementing Sporting KC’s tactics and methodology, the Rangers do one thing pretty darn well.

They win games.

Throughout 2017, Popovic has asserted that the quality of the team performance, the integration of the SKC system and the development of individual players are most important. Succeed in each of these areas, and desirable results (a.k.a. wins) will inevitably follow.

Well, the Rangers lead the USL’s Western Conference in regular season victories (31) and winning percentage (60.3%) since the start of 2016.

Last year culminated in a riveting run to the USL Cup Final. This year, SPR hopes to go one step further as league champions.