For the first time since match play was suspended March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Major League Soccer action will resume July 8 with the historic and unprecedented MLS is Back Tournament. This one-of-a-kind competition will see all 26 clubs descend on ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, marking the emphatic return of men's professional soccer in the United States after a near four-month hiatus.
As the opening match approaches, SportingKC.com is presenting a 20-day preview of the World-Cup style tournament from June 18 through July 7 called Countdown to MLS is Back presented by Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center.
Sporting Kansas City will kick off their Group D campaign on July 12 against rivals Minnesota United FC before facing the Colorado Rapids on July 17 and Real Salt Lake on July 22, with all three games shown live nationally on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app. To visit the series homepage as it expands, head to SportingKC.com/MLSisBack.
The announced suspension of the 2020 MLS campaign was one of the many stunning setbacks prompted by the novel coronavirus in mid-March. The fact that Sporting Kansas City had begun the season so impressively made the unsettling news even harder to swallow.
For those with an optimistic lens, however, better times are ahead. The MLS is Back Tournament gives Sporting Kansas City another title to play for as the season gets back underway next month in Disney World, and if the first two matches of 2020 are any indication, Manager Peter Vermes' men will have as good a shot as anyone to emerge as champions.
The first two editions of our countdown laid out how the tournament will work and what's at stake for the 26 MLS clubs participating. By the time Sporting takes the field in Florida, over four months will have elapsed since the club's red-hot start to the regular season. Here's a refresher on how the first two weeks unfolded.
Sporting soared atop the early Supporters' Shield standings.
And they did so in dominant fashion, earning a 3-1 road win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Feb. 29 before blitzing the Houston Dynamo by a 4-0 scoreline at Children's Mercy Park seven days later. Vermes' side joined Atlanta United FC, the Colorado Rapids and Minnesota United—the latter two are in Group D alongside Sporting in the MLS is Back Tournament—as the league's only teams with a spotless 2-0-0 record through Week 2.
Sporting's fast start ranked among the very best in club history.
We've got numbers to back up this assertion. Consider the following:
- Sporting has begun an MLS season with consecutive wins by multiple goals for the first time ever.
- Sporting has scored three or more goals in each of their first two MLS matches for the second time ever (2000).
- Sporting has scored seven total goals through their first two MLS matches for the second time ever (2000).
- Sporting’s plus-six goal difference is their all-time best through two matches of an MLS season.
Alan Pulido looked pretty darn awesome.
Expectations were high for the 29-year-old Mexican after he joined Sporting on a club-record transfer fee from Chivas de Guadalajara in December. Thus far, Pulido has not disappointed. The striker scored in both of Sporting's wins, bagging an inch-perfect header against Vancouver and finishing clinically in the triumph over Houston. Pulido landed MLS Team of the Week honors for his role in the Dynamo match, picking up an assist in a five-star performance that endeared him to the Children's Mercy Park faithful.
Gadi Kinda did, too.
The 26-year-old Ethiopian-born Israeli international wasn't a household name when he joined Sporting this winter, but he caught the attention of teammates and fans alike with his undeniable quality early in the season. Kinda's splendid curling strike versus Vancouver stood as the game-winner, and he was even better the following weekend when he scored once more against Houston. The only player to receive MLS Team of the Week honors in Week 1 and 2? You guessed it: Gadi Kinda.
Pulido and Kinda are the third and fourth newcomers all-time to score in each of Sporting’s first two games of a regular season. The others to do so were Danish dynamite Miklos Molnar in 2000 and Argentine Claudio Bieler in 2013. Interestingly enough, Sporting went on to win MLS Cup in both of those seasons.
Tim Melia became Sporting's all-time leader in shutouts.
Melia's clean sheet in the 4-0 defeat of Houston was the 46th of his regular season career. That moved him past club legend Jimmy Nielsen for the most in team history. Melia, of course, would be the first to point out that the players in front of him are just as responsible for the achievement. For that matter, Sporting's center back pairing of captain Matt Besler and newcomer Roberto Puncec, flanked by fullbacks Luis Martins and Graham Zusi, respectively, also looked sharp in the early stages of 2020.
Khiry Shelton and Roger Espinoza looked like beasts.
We'll talk plenty more about Shelton and Espinoza in upcoming editions of our countdown, but it should be noted that they were justly rewarded for their standout performances with goals against Houston.
What has happened since then?
Sporting players conducted home workouts for roughly eight weeks before commencing voluntary individual workouts on May 6 at Compass Minerals National Performance Center. A month or so later, the club jumped to small-group training before quickly progressing to mandatory full-team training.
One significant blow was the knee injury sustained by Chilean midfielder Felipe Gutierrez. The 29-year-old, who led Sporting with 12 goals in 2019, will miss the rest of 2020 after undergoing successful surgery earlier this month.