Countdown to Kickoff | 19 Days: Previewing the Sporting KC defenders

For the first time in the 25-year history of Major League Soccer, the month of February will mark the start of regular season play. On Feb. 29, clubs across the United States and Canada will step between the white lines with hopes of collecting three points to begin 2020.

A delectable opening day of MLS action will see Sporting Kansas City visit Vancouver Whitecaps FC at 9:30 p.m. CT, giving supporters their first real look at Manager Peter Vermes’ side since last October.

As the anticipated date approaches, SportingKC.com is rolling out a 28-day countdown to first kick, offering a comprehensive preview of the season ahead. From key storylines and positional breakdowns to new fan initiatives and perks at Children’s Mercy Park, our Countdown to Kickoff series highlights the many reasons to be pumped for Sporting’s 2020 campaign. To visit the series homepage as it expands, head to SportingKC.com/countdown.


After previewing the forwards on Saturday and the midfield corps on Sunday, it's time to look at the players who make up Sporting Kansas City's backline.

During a decade of excellence that produced eight playoff appearances and four major trophies, Sporting were widely recognized in MLS circles for a stingy defense that made life miserable for opponents. This has long been a trademark of Manager Peter Vermes' teams and a big reason he has experienced so much success in Kansas City.

The 2019 campaign, however, was a departure from the norm. Sporting allowed 67 goals last season, the second-most in MLS. The responsibility for turning that around in 2020 falls most heavily on the players listed below.

Botond Barath

2019 Recap: Started 22 of 24 competitive appearances in his first season with Sporting, contributing to five shutouts and scoring one goal.

2020 Forecast: A regular starter for the Hungary Men's National Team, Barath will have plenty to play for at the club and international level in the coming months. Sporting has yet to settle on a center back pairing, giving the 27-year-old a chance at even more minutes in his sophomore MLS season.

Matt Besler

2019 Recap: Started 31 of 33 appearances in all competitions, contributing to nine shutouts and extending his lead as the club's all-time leader in games, starts and minutes.

2020 Forecast: One of the best American defenders of his generation, Besler is a living legend in Kansas City. But motivation runs high in the grizzled veteran, and you can bet he'll do everything in his power to get Sporting back to the playoffs this fall.

Amadou Dia

2019 Recap: Helped Phoenix Rising FC to the USL Championship regular season title, starting 32 of 33 appearances as the club's defender of the year.

2020 Forecast: Back for his second stint in a Sporting uniform, Dia is out to prove that he belongs in MLS. Having starred for Rising FC over the last three years, he has another opportunity to make a splash in Kansas City.

Andreu Fontas

2019 Recap: Started 15 of 18 appearances in all competitions and contributed to three shutouts.

2020 Forecast: The Spanish veteran is expected to miss the early stages of the season as he recovers from successful surgery on his Achilles. Once fully fit, Fontas figures to contend for a starting role in central defense.

Jaylin Lindsey

2019 Recap: Earned two starts with the first team and started 13 of 14 USL Championship appearances with Sporting KC II.

2020 Forecast: The uber-athletic right back has oodles of upside and doesn't turn 20 until March. After missing half of 2019 with a knee injury, Lindsey just might become the next Academy product to flourish into a consistent first team contributor.

Luis Martins

2019 Recap: Started nine of 10 appearances and contributed to two shutouts, having joined the club in August during the summer transfer window.

2020 Forecast: The 27-year-old Portuguese took the starting spot at left back almost immediately upon joining Sporting late last summer. He showed more than a few signs of dynamism and could be poised for a breakout in his first full MLS campaign.

Roberto Puncec

2019 Recap: Led HNK Rijeka to the Croatian Cup title and made 27 appearances for the club over the course of the year.

2020 Forecast: With more than 300 club appearances in Europe, Puncec brings a wealth of experience at the center back position. He has looked formidable in his first two preseason starts alongside Besler and represents the club's biggest defensive investment of the offseason.

Winston Reid

Sporting Kansas City announced this month that the club has acquired Reid on loan from English Premier League side West Ham United. The 31-year-old arrives in Kansas City after logging over 300 club appearances in Denmark and England, including 166 Premier League matches with West Ham. The 6-foot-3 center back has also earned 25 caps for the New Zealand Men’s National Team, including three starts at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Graham Smith

2019 Recap: Started 11 of 12 first-team appearances, scoring one goal and contributing to two shutouts, while also starting 17 USL Championship matches for Sporting KC II.

2020 Forecast: Smith split time between Sporting and Sporting KC II last season. With competition for playing time running high in central defense, the Colorado native has set out to earn more opportunities at the MLS level.

Graham Zusi

2019 Recap: Started 32 of 33 appearances in all competitions, recording two assists and moving into second place on the club's all-time charts for games, starts and minutes.

2020 Forecast: Like Besler, Zusi has cemented his status as an all-time great in Kansas City. And like Besler, the midfielder-turned-right back has a burning desire to lift Sporting back into contention for a league championship after expectations fell short in 2019.

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