In their second year of existence, the Swope Park Rangers are on the cusp of a second straight appearance in the USL Cup Final.
Head coach Nikola Popovic’s men will hope to hoist another Western Conference championship trophy on Saturday when they host OKC Energy FC at 7:30 p.m. CT inside Children’s Mercy Park. Tickets for the Western Conference Final are available at SeatGeek.com or at the stadium box office prior to kickoff, and the match will stream live on SportingKC.com.
Leading up to Saturday’s showdown, SportingKC.com is offering a position-by-position look at this dynamic Rangers squad while shining the spotlight on one goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and forward. Part three focuses on the midfield corps, which boasts a rich mix of Sporting KC Academy products and senior internationals.
Spotlight: Felipe Hernandez
Few players on the Rangers roster have taken a bigger step forward in 2017 than Felipe Hernandez, the 19-year-old Nashville native who originally joined the Sporting KC Academy in 2014. After spending two years with the U-18s and earning time with the United States U-19 national team, the Colombia-born midfielder inked his first professional contract with SPR in January and hasn’t turned back since.
Hernandez has played beyond his years throughout the 2017 campaign, showcasing technical quality in the middle of the pitch while continuing to develop the “motor” needed to compete at the pro level. With two goals, three assists and 33 chances created to his name, he has diligently pieced together strong campaign while complementing the likes of fellow midfielders Christian Duke and James Musa, who shoulder more of the combative dirty work in the central channel.
In addition to making 23 regular season appearances, Hernandez has started each of the Rangers’ first two playoff matches. He went the full 120 minutes in a penalty shootout win over Phoenix Rising FC before lasting 84 minutes in last Saturday’s 1-0 defeat of Sacramento Republic FC.
The Supporting Cast
Further Academy flavor is added to the SPR midfielder courtesy of ever-present captain Christian Duke and 18-year-old Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal. Duke has quietly been one of the club’s most important contributors, tallying two goals and a team-best seven assists while playing every single minute during the 2017 campaign. The Overland Park, Kansas native wears his heart on his sleeve, utilizing his supreme fitness to cover plenty of ground and make life unenjoyable for the opponent — as evidenced by his 66 fouls won and 179 duels won, both of which lead the team.
Kuzain, like Hernandez, has shown promise in his first professional season as a holding midfielder. He earned his playoff debut last Saturday as a late sub and has started nine of 13 USL appearances with an eye-popping 91.3-percent passing accuracy. That sharpness in possession is a big reason the Sporting KC brass see him as an excellent No. 6 prospect.
While Hernandez, Duke and Kuzain have risen through the Academy ranks, Musa and Kevin Oliveira bring senior international credentials — and a devastating combination of creativity and bite — to the SPR roster.
Musa, who received Swope Park Rangers MVP honors last month at Pitch Black, has started 22 matches as Popovic’s first-choice defensive midfielder. He joined SPR from cross-state rival Saint Louis FC at the start of 2017, providing a stable presence in possession and a disruptive force when the opponent has the ball, as his 63 interceptions lead the team by a wide margin. His commanding performances have translated into an MLS contract with Sporting KC — for whom he made his league debut with an impressive start against Seattle Sounders FC on Aug. 12 — as well as a long-awaited return to the New Zealand national team. Musa featured twice for the All Whites in September to help his country reach a World Cup playoff against Peru.
If Musa’s game revolves around ruggedness, ball control and defensive solidarity, Oliveira serves as the perfect playmaking foil in the center of the field. The 21-year-old has recorded three goals, five assists and 25 chances created since returning from a long-term knee injury in April. As the team’s most technically gifted player, Oliveira honed his craft in the Benfica academy before moving from Portugal to Kansas City in early 2016. The Rangers have given him a platform on which to thrive, resulting in an MLS contract with Sporting KC — including a cameo in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final — and his debut for the Cape Verde national team in a World Cup qualifier last month.