"Five Things" is a season-long series presented by the Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center that highlights the top storylines and players to watch ahead of each match. To visit the series archive, click here.
An intriguing cross-conference clash beckons Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. CT as Sporting Kansas City (6-2-4, 20 points) and Orlando City SC (6-2-4, 22 points) prepare to lock horns at world-class Children’s Mercy Park.
The marquee matchup will be shown nationally on FS1, FOX Deportes and the FOX Sports app while also airing locally on Sports Radio 810 WHB and La Grande 1340 AM. Tickets for the contest are available at SeatGeek.com, giving fans the opportunity to catch two teams with lofty aspirations in 2020.
With Sporting looking to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss and Orlando aiming to continue their winning ways, we examine five major storylines surrounding the battle in the space below.
1. Wild, Wild West
Johnny Russell’s second-half brace spurred a furious fightback on Saturday, but Sporting conceded in the 86th minute to drop a 3-2 decision against FC Dallas at Children’s Mercy Park. The result allowed Seattle Sounders FC to leapfrog Sporting for first place in the Western Conference, but Manager Peter Vermes’ men are just a point off the pace.
The congested Western Conference standings showcase just how competitive the division is, with just seven points separating Seattle from 11th-place Real Salt Lake. All 26 MLS clubs are scheduled to take the field Wednesday, and Sporting could end the night anywhere from first to fifth in the wild West.
2. The Lions are Roaring
Head coach Oscar Pareja has Orlando enjoying its best season in club history. The Lions currently occupy third place in the Eastern Conference, five points back of Supporters’ Shield leaders Columbus Crew SC, and boast a 4-0-2 record in their last six games.
Since MLS resumed with the MLS is Back Tournament in July, Orlando boasts an 8-2-4 record, including a run to the finals of the competition in Walt Disney World. While the Lions may have benefited from being tournament hosts, Pareja’s side has looked just as good since MLS returned to home markets in mid-August.
Orlando has ridden a balanced and explosive attack toward the top of the East. Forward Chris Mueller is the only MLS player with at least seven goals and five assists, while fellow attacker Daryl Dike has three goals and three assists in the club’s last seven games. Portuguese star Nani, who had a team-best 12 goals and 10 assists last season, has six goals and five assists (including the MLS is Back Tournament) this time around.
3. Fountain of Youth
Sporting’s youth movement continues to be one of the most compelling narratives for a team that has stayed at or near the top of the West all season long. Gianluca Busio, Cam Duke, Felipe Hernandez and Jaylin Lindsey have all played significant roles of late and figure to be useful pieces heading into the final month and a half of the campaign.
To highlight this point, let’s dig into some numbers. Busio, Duke and Lindsey are all under 21 years of age, and they account for almost 11% of the team’s playing time in 2020. By comparison, the percentage of minutes logged by players under 21 at the MLS level is just 6%. That means that Sporting has received almost twice as much mileage from U-20 players than the league average.
4. Back in Action?
Sporting’s midfield received a lift on Saturday when Ilie Sanchez made his first appearance since the MLS is Back Tournament. The Spaniard had missed the previous six matches due to family matters and will undoubtedly give Vermes’ side a shot in the arm moving forward. The 2018 MLS All-Star played almost every match possible from 2017-2019, underscoring his importance to the team.
Further up the field, Mexican striker Alan Pulido could be on the brink of his own return. Vermes indicated last week that the forward would be available for selection against Orlando, which will be music to the ears of Sporting fans. The club-record signing has four goals and four assists across all competitions and brings a different dimension to the team’s attack. Sporting is 5-2-1 with Pulido in the lineup with an average of 2.25 goals per game. They are 1-2-1 without him and average 1.25 goals per match in his absence.
5. Perks for Supporters
For starters, all fans in attendance will receive a free pop socket courtesy of match sponsor Price Chopper. Furthermore, supporters who spend $25 or more on concessions or merchandise via mobile order in the Sporting KC app will be treated to a free Sporting KC face covering. The Sporting KC app will also provide a matchday offer for a free Coca-Cola six-pack at any Kansas City area Price Chopper location (valid Sept. 23-25 with rewards card) as well as a digital scratcher in which every participant is guaranteed a Price Chopper reward.
For the fourth straight home game, SportingStyle locations will offer a variety of Kick Childhood Cancer retail items, including limited-edition scarves and beanies, in support of The Victory Project and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. For every beanie sold, Sporting will donate a beanie to Children’s Mercy Hospital for patients fighting cancer.