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.
Less than a week from now, all 26 MLS clubs will have descended on Walt Disney World with hopes of ultimately hoisting the MLS is Back Tournament trophy on Aug. 11. Some teams will fancy their odds more than others. Like any competition, there will be favorites, darkhorses, underdogs and longshots.
The category that Sporting Kansas City belongs in is up for debate. What isn’t debatable, however, is the fact that Manager Peter Vermes’ men have a fighting chance to win the title—and, by extension, the Concacaf Champions League berth and prize money that comes with it.
So, why should Sporting fans feel confident heading into July? With eight days until the MLS is Back Tournament kicks off, we present just as many reasons why Sporting can win the whole darn thing.
1. Sporting looked phenomenal in Weeks 1 and 2
Small sample size, of course, but Sporting nevertheless looked like one of the best sides in MLS through Week 2. An impressive 3-1 road win at Vancouver was followed by a 4-0 mauling of Houston at Children’s Mercy Park, which gave Sporting an early lead in the Supporters’ Shield table. Almost four months have elapsed since then, and it’s impossible to know if Sporting’s late-winter form will carry into midsummer. But you can only judge what you’ve already seen, and what we’ve seen from Sporting thus far has been sensational.
2. Sporting has an elite No. 9
Alan Pulido joined Sporting with great expectations placed upon his shoulders, and he duly delivered in his first two MLS appearances. The Mexican scored in both early-season victories and added an assist in the defeat of Houston, endearing himself to the Children’s Mercy Park faithful and prompting fans to believe that Sporting had a star center forward.
Pulido isn’t alone up top, of course. Johnny Russell and Khiry Shelton provide quality and work rate on the wings, while Gerso Fernandes, Erik Hurtado and Daniel Salloi provide depth. All in all, it’s a very strong attacking corps on paper.
3. Sporting has midfield balance
Looking for a heady, composed and polished holding midfielder who glues the team together? That’s Ilie Sanchez. Looking for a destroyer in the middle of the park who makes opponents’ lives miserable? That’s Roger Espinoza. Looking for a game-changing wizard in the attacking third? Gadi Kinda appears to be exactly that, having scored in his first two appearances this season. Looking for an exciting youngster to make the next major step forward? Eighteen-year-old Gianluca Busio is your guy.
4. Sporting has squad depth
As Sporting prepares for up to seven matches in the space of a month, Vermes will have a wealth of options at his disposal. We’ve already touched on the deep attack and midfield, so let’s focus on the backline. At the center back position alone, Sporting can draw from captain Matt Besler, early-season starter Roberto Puncec, Hungarian international Botond Barath, former Barcelona man Andreu Fontas, English Premier League veteran Winston Reid and versatile youngster Graham Smith. Luis Martins and Amadou Dia will contend for playing time at left back, while longtime starter Graham Zusi will be pushed by 20-year-old Jaylin Lindsey at right back.
5. Sporting knows how to win cup competitions
You simply cannot question Vermes’ track record. MLS Cup 2013 and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup titles in 2012, 2015 and 2017 suggest he knows a thing or two about how to navigate a tournament. Sporting’s four cup titles since 2012 are the most in MLS among American clubs.
6. Sporting can play in hot humidity
Orlando is infamous for its stifling combination of heat and humidity in the summer. But anyone who’s been to Kansas City in June, July or August knows the heartland can be just as sweltering. Kansas City’s heat may not quite compare to that of Florida’s, but Sporting has been able to train at high temperatures for several weeks in the leadup to the competition. They should be better acclimated to Orlando’s playing conditions than just about everyone aside from Orlando, Inter Miami, Houston and FC Dallas.
7. Sporting has veteran leadership
Besler wears the captain’s armband, but a host of others have drawn recent praise from Vermes for their leadership in the locker room. Zusi, Espinoza, Ilie, Russell, Pulido and goalkeeper Tim Melia all bring loads of experience as competent leaders. This complexion could be enormously helpful as Sporting tries to navigate the many unique challenges posed by the MLS is Back Tournament.
8. Sporting has led the way during COVID-19
A bullish and unsubstantiated claim? Don’t be so sure. Vermes and Sporting’s technical staff created the return-to-training protocol that MLS used league-wide as players returned to practice facilities in May. Sporting was then among the first teams to commence individual workouts, small group training and full-team practice.
Vermes has repeatedly declared his optimism in the face of abundant fear and uncertainty, and his ability to move the needle in a safe and positive way has helped MLS return before the NBA, NHL and MLB.
“I don’t work on the failures, I work on the achievements,” he said during a teleconference in May, several weeks before MLS is Back was announced. “The idea is that I’m an optimist. I’m thinking that everyone is going to try and work to get there. So I have to try and come up with a solution for our club.
“Is that pie in the sky? Yeah, maybe. But I’m going to keep working towards coming out of this. I’m not going to just sit around waiting for someone to do something. We’re trying to find solutions, and we’re going to keep doing that until we figure out what the case is. And if the season gets cancelled, I don’t think what we’ve done is for nothing. We’ve just got to keep moving toward the next (step).”