Playoff Preview: Industrious Sporting KC midfield blends creativity and grit

Sporting Kansas City will kick off their 2018 postseason campaign in the Western Conference Semifinals of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. As the No. 1 seed in the West, Manager Peter Vermes' side will play the first leg on the road this Sunday and host the decisive second leg on Sunday, Nov. 11, at Children's Mercy Park. Tickets for Sporting KC's first home playoff match since 2013 are on sale now via SeatGeek.com.

In the buildup to the conference semifinals, SportingKC.com will take a position-by-position look at arguably the most balanced team in Sporting KC history. Serving as a regular season recap and a playoff preview, the series will unfold in the following order: Goalkeeper Tim Melia on Monday, defenders on Tuesday, midfielders on Wednesday and forwards on Thursday.


As anyone who follows Major League Soccer is well aware, Manager Peter Vermes and the 4-3-3 formation go together like peas and carrots.

Since the turn of the decade, when Vermes began molding Sporting Kansas City into a perennial title contender, his preferred arrangement of players has consisted of a back four, three industrious midfielders and a three-pronged attack consisting of an active center forward and two interchangeable wingers.

However, the exact style of Vermes’ 4-3-3 setup has evolved over the last few seasons. During his early tenure, Sporting KC predicated themselves on a stifling high press with midfield destroyers and overlapping fullbacks who delivered cross after cross into the penalty area. The last few seasons have witnessed a shift to a far more polished and possession-oriented approach, rooted philosophically in the classic tiki-taka of Spanish juggernaut FC Barcelona.

In carrying out this style of play, arguably no positions are more important than those of the midfield three. And when assessing how well Sporting KC has executed these roles over the course of 2018, just take a look at the Western Conference standings: first place with 18 wins and 62 points, both tied for the most in team history.

Sporting KC’s midfield corps features a rich blend of technical quality, tireless grit and more creativity than we’ve seen in recent years. It’s a combination that will give the side confidence heading into the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, and one that we will liken to a high-performance locomotive in the space below (sorry if you don’t like metaphors).

The Engine

It’s no secret that Roger Espinoza has a motor that never stops. The Honduran regularly ranks among the MLS leaders in duels won and tackles won, embodying a certain toughness that Vermes adores. Espinoza has competed at two FIFA World Cups, an Olympics, and competed at the highest level in the English Premier League from 2013-2014.

What might casual fans not know about Espinoza? At 32 years young, he’s in the midst of his best season as a professional. In addition to functioning as Sporting KC’s midfield engine, Espinoza has hit MLS career-highs with three goals and nine assists. Those nine assists aren’t an aberration, either: he ranks fifth in MLS with 58 chances created from the run of play and ninth in successful passes in the attacking third.

It’s also worth mentioning that Espinoza, unlike fellow Sporting KC veterans Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic and Graham Zusi, has yet to win an MLS Cup. He played in Kansas City from 2008-2012, ventured to England, then returned in 2015. This could be one of the last chances Espinoza has to claim the most coveted prize in MLS.

The Conductor

There’s a reason Ilie Sanchez was named an MLS All-Star and the team MVP. The 27-year-old Spaniard has expertly fulfilled his long list of duties as Sporting KC’s No. 6. Sitting atop the MLS charts in multiple passing categories while also ranking high in recoveries, Ilie has recorded professional career-highs with four goals and four assists.

It’s also impossible to keep Ilie off the pitch. He has played every minute of all 37 matches this season, including the Open Cup. And since he joined Sporting KC at the start of 2017, he has played every minute in 66 of the club’s 67 games across all competitions. He’s clean on the ball, precise in his distribution and tactically disciplined. He is the all-important conduit for Vermes’ team, the on-field overseer of the operation. He is the conductor.

The Engineer

By definition, the conductor is in charge of the entire train. The engineer specializes in operating the train at maximum performance. We’ll give this role to Chilean international Felipe Gutierrez, who has amassed seven goals and two assists in a solid first MLS season.

Gutierrez took the league by storm, scoring five goals in Sporting KC’s first five games to claim MLS Player of the Month honors in March. The 28-year-old suffered a setback when he missed two months with a hernia injury, but he was back to full speed by the start of August. Sporting KC’s record since then? Nine wins, two losses and two draws.

Sporting KC is 12-5-3 this season when Gutierrez plays. His impact for the team is evident, and he has the international pedigree to suggest he won’t be fazed by the high stakes of the playoffs. After all, this is a guy who won the 2015 Copa America with Chile a year after competing at the FIFA World Cup.  

The Safety Valve

Frenchman Yohan Croizet boasts a feat that hardly anyone else can claim on the Sporting KC roster. He has played on all three lines in Vermes’ 4-3-3 formation. He has featured as a midfielder, up front on the wing, and in Sunday’s 2-1 win over LAFC he patrolled the left back spot for the final half-hour. Croizet is Sporting KC’s safety valve, a useful piece capable of filling just about any part of the puzzle.

Croizet, who arrived last December from Belgian side KV Mechelen, has started 19 of 34 appearances in all competitions for Sporting KC, tallying five goals and three assists. He has only gotten better as the season has progressed, and his versatility will come in handy if Sporting KC manages a deep postseason run. Oh, and he is also capable of stuff like this…

The Spare Parts

What were you doing at the age of 16? Because Gianluca Busio is scoring and assisting goals for Sporting KC. The midfield wunderkind has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign with the first team, playing eight matches in all competitions while becoming the second-youngest player in MLS history to score a goal and record an assist. His impressive cameo in a 4-1 win at Vancouver on Oct. 17 was a prompt reminder that he could still have a part to play during the postseason.

What were you doing at the age of 20? Because Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal is also amidst a breakthrough year as another promising Sporting KC Academy product. The homegrown holding midfielder has started five of eight appearances in all competitions, notching a goal and an assist, in addition to shouldering a lead role for the Swope Park Rangers in the USL. Busio and Kuzain are short of big-game experience, but neither would shy away from the opportunity to help Sporting KC when it matters most.

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