MLSsoccer.com: Sporting KC legit contenders in MLS is Back Tournament

MLSsoccer.com has published its MLS is Back Tournament mega-preview, taking an in-depth look at all participating clubs ahead of the historic competition in Walt Disney World. Previews for Sporting Kansas City and its Group D opponents—Minnesota United FC, the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake—are below.


Sporting Kansas City

There’s no sugarcoating the disappointment of the 2019 campaign for Sporting after they uncharacteristically missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. But if there was any team that looked like an early candidate for the most improved squad in the league, it was this one, led by new big-money forward Alan Pulido and fellow offseason signing Gadi Kinda. Sporting tore apart the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Houston Dynamo in their first two games, looking very much primed to leave the bitterness of 2019 in the rearview mirror

Weeks 1 & 2: Pulido wasted no time showing why he was one of the biggest signings of the offseason, scoring 17 minutes into his debut in Vancouver before a Kinda golazo and a late tally from Erik Hurtado sealed up a 3-1 victory. The fireworks continued the next week against Houston, as Pulido and Kinda each scored another, with Roger Espinoza and Khiry Shelton also finding the net in an emphatic 4-0 home victory.

Early MVP: You wouldn’t be wrong to say Pulido here, as he looked every bit the part of the big-time No. 9 fans had been waiting on for years. But Kinda’s performance has to be equally encouraging for Peter Vermes, considering he was something of a wild card coming into the season and the heavy influence he had on both games.

Projected XI: (4-3-3, left to right): Melia – Martins, Besler, Puncec, Zusi – Espinoza, Ilie, Kinda – Gerso, Pulido, Russell; Coach: Peter Vermes

Tournament Prospects: It should be noted that those first two great results didn’t exactly come against highly-touted opponents, but it’s still hard not to look at the attacking fireworks on display in those matchups and not come away highly intrigued as to what this team’s ceiling could be. They will face tougher opposition than they did in Weeks 1 and 2, with the likes of Minnesota, Colorado and RSL waiting in their group, but Sporting are legitimate contenders if they can manage to pick up where they left off in March.

Minnesota United FC

 

Minnesota United will arrive in Orlando as arguably the league’s most impressive performers so far this season. After making the playoffs for the first time in 2019, there is plenty of cause for even higher ambitions this time around. An experienced squad with a sprinkling of talented youth, no team will be eager to take on Adrian Heath’s squad.

Weeks 1 & 2: You couldn’t wish for a better start to the season than Minnesota enjoyed, with two dominant, counter-attacking wins on the road against the Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes. With eight goals, they were also the top scorers in MLS through the first two weeks.

Early MVP: Ike Opara was as solid as ever at the back, Jan Gregus and Ethan Finlay were exceptional in midfield and on the wing but the early headlines were grabbed by new striker Luis Amarilla. The Paraguayan is already two goals toward his prediction of 25 for the season.

Projected XI (4-2-3-1, left to right): Miller -- Gasper, Aja, Boxall, Metanire -- Gregus, Alonso -- Lod, Molino, Finlay -- Amarilla; Coach: Adrian Heath

Tournament Prospects: The Loons received a huge blow ahead of the tournament with 2019 MLS Defender of the Year Opara staying behind in Minnesota to rehab a preexisting condition. His absence presents a major headache for Adrian Heath, as does the fact that they were drawn into maybe the toughest group. Still, there remains enough quality in their ranks for them to be considered a threat to grab a Concacaf Champions League slot for the first time.

Colorado Rapids

It’s Colorado’s first full season under head coach Robin Fraser, and it’s gone about as well as anyone could have hoped. Two wins from two games had the Rapids surging in 2020, and then the COVID-19 pandemic halted their momentum in March. Can they pick up where they left off in Orlando?

Weeks 1 & 2: The Rapids came flying out of the gates, starting with a stoppage-time Week 1 win at D.C. United. They followed that up with another thrilling victory, this time a 2-1 home win against Orlando that featured a Drew Moor go-ahead header.

Early MVP: The Rapids’ best spells in those games typically came when Englishman Jack Price was expertly conducting traffic, and he recorded two assists in those first two weeks. The deep-lying midfielder has also turned into a corner-kick specialist of sorts, and does many of the little things that allow Colorado’s attacking players to thrive.

Projected XI (4-2-3-1, left to right): Irwin – Vines, Abubakar, Moor, Rosenberry – Acosta, Price – Shinyashiki, Namli, Lewis – Kamara; Coach: Robin Fraser

Tournament Prospects: No one would fault Rapids fans for thinking their club can make a deep run in Orlando, especially if the classy Younes Namli can create goals from nothing like he did in Week 2. They’ll need his magic in an evenly-matched Group D that is impossible to predict.

Real Salt Lake

Freddy Juarez didn’t see as many goals as he would have liked through the first two games of his first full season as head coach, but RSL did show some moxie picking up a road point at none other than Orlando in their season opener and getting a late equalizer to salvage another draw at home against the New York Red Bulls in their next match. Figuring out how to jump-start the attack, though, has no doubt been priority number one for Juarez & Co. during the layoff.

Weeks 1 & 2: RSL’s first match was probably the biggest snoozer of the Week 1 slate as they ended in a scoreless draw with Orlando that featured little by way of chances for either side. After conceding just 13 minutes into the next match at home against RBNY, Damir Kreilach came to the rescue with the leveler in the first minute of second-half stoppage time, leaving the club at 0-0-2.

Early MVP: Aside from a well-taken long-range strike from RBNY’s Cristian Casserres Jr., RSL’s defense looked sound through two weeks, with 33-year-old center back Nedum Onuoha playing a key role in holding their opponents to the single goal through two matches.

Projected XI: (4-2-3-1, left to right): MacMath – Toia, Onuoha, Silva, Herrera – Beckerman, Everton Luiz – Meram, Rusnak, Baird – Kreilach; Coach: Freddy Juarez

Tournament Prospects: There’s no question they’ll need to score more to make a run at it, especially in a well-balanced and potentially a defensively strong Group D. RSL could be a sleeper candidate to make a run if they can ignite their attack and combine it with what so far looks to be a solid and disciplined defending group that has plenty of veteran experience.

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