Starting XI, presented by StorageMart, is a biweekly series on SportingKC.com that highlights 11 of the biggest storylines and news updates from Sporting Kansas City, MLS and soccer around the globe. Click here to visit the Starting XI archive.
1. Heartbreak Hotel
Sporting KC’s 2018 season came to a heartbreaking end on Thursday in a 3-2 defeat to the Portland Timbers in the decisive second leg of the Western Conference Championship. Daniel Salloi and Gerso Fernandes found the back of the net for Sporting KC, but Portland bagged three second-half goals—a brace from Diego Valeri and a Sebastian Blanco wonderstrike—to secure the conference title.
The loss, which came four days after the sides scrapped to a scoreless first-leg draw in Portland, draws the curtains on a record-breaking year for Sporting KC, who set all-time club records for goals, assists and shots while amassing 18 regular-season wins and 62 points, both the second-most in team history. The Timbers, meanwhile, advance to MLS Cup 2018 against Atlanta United FC on Saturday, Dec. 8.
2. Fuel for the Future
While the Sporting KC locker room clearly felt the pain of Thursday's loss, Manager Peter Vermes had a more upbeat tone after the match, and said the message to his team after the match was one of encouragement.
“The biggest thing for me right now, is I think the guys accomplished a lot this year,” Vermes said. “They’ve evolved as a team. It was an enjoyable team to coach on a daily basis, and we’ve got a lot more ahead of us and we’re in a good direction.”
The immediate aftermath of losing such a big match can make it hard for players to reflect positively on the way their season went. Most of the Sporting KC players were in that position Thursday, but Vermes was already forecasting the future.
“I think situations like this, they’re going to stick with you a long time,” he said. ”It’s a motivating factor in my opinion.”
3. Options Exercised
Sporting Kansas City announced Friday that the club has exercised contract options for the following four players ahead of the 2019 MLS season: forward Diego Rubio, defender Graham Smith and goalkeepers Eric Dick and Adrian Zendejas. In addition, Sporting KC has extended a bona fide offer to forward Khiry Shelton, who is out of contract at the end of the year.
Sporting KC has declined contract options for forward Kharlton Belmar, midfielder Cristian Lobato and defenders Amer Didic, Brad Evans and Colton Storm. Belmar, Lobato, Didic and Storm are eligible for the MLS Waiver Draft on Dec. 12. Evans is eligible for free agency, beginning Dec. 11, and for the MLS Re-Entry Draft, with Stage One set for Dec. 14 and Stage Two on Dec. 20.
4. SPR Shuffle
The Swope Park Rangers will return seven players from the 2018 United Soccer League season, the club announced Friday. SPR have exercised contract options on two players: midfielder Rassambek Akhmatov and forward Ethan Vanacore-Decker.
Four Sporting KC Academy products remain under contract for 2019: Camilo Benitez, Felipe Hernandez, Will Little and Wilson Harris. The club has also agreed a new contract with defender Justin Bilyeu.
The Rangers declined options on goalkeepers Christian Herrera and Darrin MacLeod, defenders Dakota Barnathan, Thierry Catherine, Matt Lewis, Parker Maher and Bryam Rebellon, midfielders Chase Minter and Matheus Silva and forwards Jose Barragan and Tyler Blackwood. In addition, forward Hadji Barry is out of contract with the club.
5. Know Our Foe
The official draw of the 2019 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League will take place tonight at 6 p.m. CT at the Univision Deportes Studios in Miami. Sporting KC is one of five MLS clubs set to participate in the annual competition, having qualified for the tournament as the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champion.
6. Busio Shines Bright
Sporting KC midfielder Gianluca Busio led the United States U-17 Men’s National Team to a 1-1 draw against Brazil on Sunday, scoring a goal in the final match of the 2018 Nike International Friendlies at the Premier Sports Complex in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
Busio’s strike—his second for the U.S. at the U-17 level—came in first-half stoppage time when he volleyed home a Giovani Reyna cross from close range. The 16-year-old Sporting KC Academy product played the full 90 minutes as the Americans conceded a late equalizer and closed the prestigious youth tournament with a second-place finish behind Portugal.
7. Winter Showcase
The Sporting KC Academy U-19s and U-17s delivered strong displays this weekend at the 2018 U.S. Soccer Development Academy Winter Showcase, held at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
Sean Karani propelled the Sporting KC U-19s to a win and two draws, scoring in each game of the high-profile youth competition against the New York Red Bulls, LA Galaxy and Sacramento Republic FC, respectively. The U-17s took two victories and a loss, bookending a narrow 1-0 defeat to the Chicago Fire with triumphs over PA Classics and the Portland Timbers.
8. Berhalter Appointed
The U.S. Soccer Federation on Sunday appointed two-time FIFA World Cup veteran Gregg Berhalter as the new head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team. With 25 years of experience as a player and head coach for clubs in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, Berhalter becomes the first U.S. World Cup veteran to take the reins of the U.S. MNT. He is also the first USA boss with experience as a player and a coach both domestically and internationally.
9. An Early Preview
MLS Cup 2018 is set in stone: Atlanta United FC will host the Portland Timbers on Satuday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the game airing live at 7 p.m. CT on FOX and UniMas. MLSsoccer.com's Ben Baer has cobbled together an early preview of the matchup, which pits high-flying Atlanta against a Portland side that has shown strong resiliency throughout the postseason.
10. Adams to Germany
The New York Red Bulls announced on Sunday the transfer of Homegrown midfielder Tyler Adams to Red Bull Leipzig of the German Bundesliga. Adams will officially join Leipzig when the January transfer window opens. The 19-year-old U.S. international departs MLS with two goals and 11 assists in 52 regular-season appearances since making his league debut for New York in 2016.
11. Copa Craziness
Argentine club River Plate have issued a staunch statement rejecting CONMEBOL’s decision to play the second leg of the 2018 Copa Libertadores final against fellow Argentine rival Boca Juniors in Madrid, Spain. Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium was chosen as a neutral venue after the second leg in Buenos Aires was twice postponed after the Boca Juniors bus was attacked prior to last weekend's second leg.
CONMEBOL eventually arranged for the second leg to be played this Sunday, but River Plate are against moving the game 6,000 miles away from Buenos Aires, where both clubs are located. River Plate and Boca Juniors played to a 2-2 draw in the first leg on Nov. 11.
Games to Watch (Dec. 4-5, 2018)
|Tuesday, 2pm||Watford vs. Manchester City||English Premier League||NBCSN|
|Wednesday, 2pm||Manchester United vs. Arsenal||English Premier League||NBCSN|