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. The fourth and final part focuses a deep stable of attackers led by the red-hot Kharlton Belmar.
Spotlight: Kharlton Belmar
The 24-year-old Belmar couldn’t have written a better script for his first USL campaign with the Rangers.
After spending his first two professional seasons with Portland Timbers 2, the Virginia Commonwealth product moved to Kansas City where he rediscovered the scintillating form that landed him 2015 USL Rookie of the Year honors. Belmar leads SPR with a club-record 15 goals — including the winner in last Saturday’s 1-0 triumph over Sacramento Republic FC that propelled his side to the Western Conference Final — and has parlayed his stellar contributions into an MLS contract with Sporting Kansas City, for whom he signed on Sept. 15.
Capable of occupying any position in SPR’s three-pronged attack, Belmar showcased his scoring penchant during a superb month of September that saw the Rangers go 4-1-1 after laboring through August without a win. He scored in five consecutive matches from Sept. 9-30 as the Rangers effectively secured a top-four seed and a home playoff game in the Western Conference.
In addition to starting both of SPR’s playoff matches thus far, Belmar was handed his MLS debut on Oct. 11 as Sporting KC chased a late equalizer against the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium. His late-game cameo could end up being the first of many appearances under Manager Peter Vermes and Sporting KC, who will look to bolster their strike force in the offseason.
The Supporting Cast
“Strength in numbers” is the mantra up top. SPR head coach Nikola Popovic has a wealth of attacking options at his disposal, with 20-year-old sparkplug Nansel Selbol (nine goals, two assists) and the talismanic Lebo Moloto (seven goals, four assists) ranking second and third on the club’s scoring charts.
Selbol, a product of the Sporting KC Academy, leads the USL in scoring among players aged 20 and under. Whether he starts or comes on as a high-energy substitute — as he has done in the first two playoff games — Selbol’s movement and pace make him a constant danger in the final third.
Moloto, meanwhile, arguably matches midfielder Kevin Oliveira as the most skilled player on the roster. The South African is often deployed as a “false nine,” serving as an unconventional center forward who regularly drops into the midfield to pull the strings as a playmaker. His 51 chances created are 17 more than any other SPR player, while his team-leading 47 shots prove that he isn’t scared to pull the trigger himself. Moloto is simply a joy to watch on the ball, and his offensive production is a big reason the Rangers are on the cusp of another trip to the USL Cup Final.
Joining the likes of Belmar, Selbol and Moloto is Tyler Pasher, the versatile winger/fullback hybrid who has manned the left side of SPR’s attack during the playoffs. The 23-year-old Canadian starred for SPR in 2016, earning a contract with Sporting KC last December, and has continued to provide a spark on loan in 2017. He featured predominantly as a left back for most of the year, but Popovic has used him as a winger in recent weeks — and for good reason. Pasher’s blinding speed and pinpoint delivery add a unique dimension to the SPR front line.
Two other forwards who have made ripples at the USL level are second-year pro Mark Anthony Gonzalez and Academy product Max Rugova. Gonzalez led the Rangers last season with 12 goals, including three in the playoffs, and has bagged a further five in 2017. Nagging injuries have limited him to 20 appearances and 14 starts in his sophomore campaign.
The 17-year-old Rugova opened his professional scoring account in SPR’s 5-2 hammering of San Antonio FC in September. The Overland Park, Kansas native has made seven USL appearances to date and has been an available substitute in both playoff matches.