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. Now Trending
For the second straight year, Sporting KC were among the hottest MLS searches on the web. Google this week announced its top trending MLS teams of 2018 as part of its annual "Year in Search," shining the spotlight on the people, topics, places and events that drew the most attention throughout the year.
Sporting KC were among the clubs that had the highest traffic spikes in 2018 compared to 2017, rather than the highest rates of overall web traffic. So teams that experienced success on the field and provided plenty of storylines off the field were more likely to draw increased traffic compared to the year before. The fact that Sporting KC has repeated the feat in consecutive years points to just how exciting 2018 was for the club.
2. Kuz Cruises to Semis
The 2018 USL campaign featured a whopping 1,655 goals, and arguably none were better than Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal’s stunning free kick in the Swope Park Rangers’ 2-1 win over Tulsa Roughnecks FC on Aug. 29 at Children’s Mercy Park. Voting for the 2018 USL Fans’ Choice Goal of the Year continues this week with Kuzain’s belter among the final four strikes vying for the top prize in a knockout format that will be decided by a fan vote at USLChampionship.com.
3. Fontas Gives Back
Sporting KC defender Andreu Fontas opened a new Cruyff Court on Wednesday in his hometown of Banyoles, Spain. Fontas’ initiative is tied to the Johan Cruyff Foundation, which has committed to the construction and maintenance of 15 free-use soccer fields in disadvantages areas throughout Spain's Catalonia region. As part of Wednesday’s inauguration, Fontas played soccer and signed autographs with local youth.
The newly developed Cruyff Courts contribute to an overarching goal of instilling values such as responsibility, integration, team play and personal improvement while also countering sedentary lifestyle and childhood obesity. Named after the legendary Dutch soccer player, the Johan Cruyff Foundation supports and develops sports activities for children in need all over the world.
4. Time to Reflect
The 2018 season finale of the Sporting KC Show Podcast dropped Wednesday as hosts Nate Bukaty and Carter Augustine caught up with Sporting KC veterans Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, Tim Melia, Seth Sinovic and Graham Zusi to reflect on a record-breaking campaign that resulted in a first-place finish atop the West and a run to the conference finals.
Sporting KC's highlight-filled season may have ended in heartbreak—the Portland Timbers emerged with a 3-2 aggregate win to stake their spot in the MLS Cup—but a look ahead to 2019 gives players and fans alike plenty to be excited about. Bukaty and Augustine also heard from renowned soccer journalist Paul Tenorio, who touched on a variety of compelling offseason talking points.
5. Star Duo
The Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs saw several star players shine under the brightest of lights. Matt Besler and Johnny Russell were no exception, as the Sporting KC duo were selected to the Audi Player Index Team of the Playoffs on Tuesday.
It comes as little surprise that MLS Cup finalists Atlanta United FC and the Portland Timbers led the way with four players apiece on the 11-man squad, but Sporting KC and the New York Red Bulls were also represented.
6. Hard Pass
Sporting KC passed on its pick in the 2018 MLS Waiver Draft on Wednesday. Twenty-one of 24 MLS clubs elected to pass during the Waiver Draft, which consisted of players who had been waived by their teams but didn’t meet the minimum years of service requirement for the Re-Entry Draft or Free Agency.
The 2018-19 MLS offseason continues later this week, with Stage 1 of the 2018 MLS Re-Entry Draft taking place Friday at 2 p.m. CT. Click here for the Re-Entry Draft rules.
7. Free Agents
Major League Soccer on Tuesday announced the list of 34 players eligible for Free Agency this offseason. Free Agents can engage in negotiations with MLS teams outside of their previous club. Players 28 years of age and older with eight MLS service years who are out of contract, or have had their option declined, are eligible for Free Agency in 2018, allowing them the freedom to negotiate a new contract with any MLS club, including their previous club, subject to certain restrictions.
8. Cincy at Work
The new kids on the block are hard at work building their inaugural MLS roster.
In Tuesday's MLS Expansion Draft, FC Cincinnati took forward Darren Mattocks, winger Roland Lamah, midfielder Eric Alexander, defender Hassan Ndam and forward Kei Kamara. Cincy then immediately traded Kamara to the Colorado Rapids in exchange for an international slot before making a pair of notable trades, acquiring outside back Greg Garza from Atlanta United FC and center back Kendall Waston from Vancouver Whitecaps FC. To add to their Tuesday haul, the club added midfielder Victor Ulloa from FC Dallas on Wednesday.
9. Steffen to City
After a few weeks of speculation, the deal is done. Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen is set to join English Premier League giant Manchester City on July 9, 2019, after the U.S. international was transferred for a club-record fee and the highest for a goalkeeper in MLS history.
10. The Field is Set
The 16-team field for the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League Knockout Rounds is now set after the group stage concluded this week. English clubs Liverpool and Tottenham both snuck into the knockout stage in dramatic fashion on Tuesday, with the Reds edging Napoli 1-0 and Spurs battling Barcelona to a 1-1 draw.
11. Ending on a High
The Sporting KC Academy U-14s and U-15s played their final matches of 2018 last week, facing elite competition in two separate locations.
The Sporting KC U-14s traveled east for the start of the US Youth Soccer National League at Gillette Athletic Complex in Wilson, North Carolina, while the U-15s ventured south for a pair of friendlies against Mexican foes at Toyota Soccer Center in Frisco, Texas.
Games to Watch (Dec. 15-16, 2018)
|Saturday, 6:30am||Manchester City vs. Everton||English Premier League||NBCSN|
|Saturday, 8:30am||Hannover vs. Bayern Munich||German Bundesliga||FS1|
|Saturday, 9am||Tottenham vs. Burnley||English Premier League||NBCSN|
|Saturday, 11:30am||Real Madrid vs. Rayo Vallecano||Spanish La Liga||beIN SPORTS|
|Saturday, 11:30am||Borussia Dortmund vs. Werder Bremen||German Bundesliga||FS2|
|Sunday, 7:30am||Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Chelsea||English Premier League||NBCSN|
|Sunday, 10am||Liverpool vs. Manchester United||English Premier League||NBCSN|
|Sunday, 1:45pm||Levante vs. Barcelona||Spanish La Liga||beIN SPORTS|