A pair of familiar faces who weren’t present in 2019 have returned to Sporting Kansas City.
Both enjoyed success in their first go-arounds at Children’s Mercy Park—Dia winning the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and Shelton helping the side finish first in the West in 2018—before their respective career paths took them to two very different places.
Dia, 26, spent three years in the second-division USL Championship as a regular starter for Phoenix Rising FC. Shelton, the same age, embraced a challenge in Germany with SC Paderborn 07, a club that gained promotion to the top-flight Bundesliga last summer.
Although their experiences since leaving Sporting differed in duration, location and level of play, both are delighted to be back at a place they describe as home.
“When I came here, I loved the place right away—the fancy stadium, the facilities, the soccer culture. Now that I’m back here, I’m very grateful,” Dia said Saturday at Pinnacle. “As soon as I found out they were interested in bringing me back, I talked to my agent and we tried to get this moving as fast as possible (to) secure the deal.”
Shelton echoed those sentiments: “I missed this place, for sure, this last year—especially seeing how the (2019) season went,” he said. “It bummed me out because I know what this club is about here.”
Dia’s three-year spell in Phoenix was certainly fruitful. He was named the club’s Defender of the Year in 2018 and 2019 and was part of a team that set an all-time American professional soccer record with 20 straight wins last year. For the entirety of his stay, however, he knew he wanted to return to the top level in MLS—and to get that second chance with Sporting was icing on the cake.
“This is one of the best environments in the country, for sure. It just makes me feel comfortable. It feels like home for me,” he said. “I’m hoping I’m back here to make a difference and win a championship. We won one last time I was here—it was the (2015) Open Cup. But we want MLS Cup, for sure.”
As for Shelton, he too experienced his share of positive emotions over the course of 12 months with SC Paderborn 07. He joined the side last January and helped Paderborn earn promotion before making a dream Bundesliga debut against European powerhouse FC Bayern Munich last fall. He also benefited from a tremendous quality of life in Germany.
“It brought up a lot of emotions and it was a hard decision, but it was best for me,” Shelton said of leaving Kansas City at the end of 2018. “(Paderborn) was difficult. I didn’t have the easiest route or opportunity there, but I was able to stick at it and push myself to get better even though it was difficult. I just had to stay at it and be resilient, because a lot of players don’t get that chance.”
While at Paderborn, Shelton’s opportunities on the field were limited. And when the call came from Sporting, he didn’t think twice about the reunion.
“Just look around,” Shelton said with a beaming smile at Pinnacle. “We have everything here. The people, the training facility, the stadium, the culture. It’s all here. This is home for me.”
Another member of Sporting who thrived under Manager Peter Vermes, took a detour abroad, then returned is midfielder Roger Espinoza. The grizzled MLS veteran developed in Kansas City from 2008-2012 before joining English club Wigan Athletic, where he won the FA Cup and competed in the UEFA Europa League prior to returning in 2015. Espinoza relates with Dia and Shelton in that respect and is excited to see them in Sporting blue once more.
“We always tell players who get traded or go to other teams, ‘Just make sure you leave through the front door. Because if you leave through the back door, you’re never coming back.’ Those guys left here in good terms, and the doors were open for them when they were ready to come back,” Espinoza said.
“(Dia) got more experience and more mature. With Khiry, we knew that he wanted to go to Europe. He helped us a lot in 2018. Then (Dia) was here when we won the 2015 Open Cup. He helped us to a championship. It’s great to have players like that come back.”