After finishing atop the Western Conference regular season standings, Sporting Kansas City will look to punctuate an unprecedented 2020 campaign by winning silverware on Major League Soccer's greatest stage. The Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs will see Sporting join an expanded field of 18 clubs, all of which have their sights firmly set on hoisting the MLS Cup on Dec. 12.
In order to claim the ultimate prize, Sporting Kansas City must navigate a single-elimination bracket packed with in-form teams. The first step is a Round One showdown with the No. 8 seed San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday, Nov. 22, at Children's Mercy Park. Kickoff is slated for 3 p.m. CT with live coverage on FS1, FOX Deportes, the FOX Sports app, ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM.
As postseason anticipation continues to build, SportingKC.com is rolling out a 12-day countdown to the club's opening playoff match, offering a comprehensive preview of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. From key storylines and positional breakdowns to history lessons and community initiatives, our Countdown to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs highlights the many reasons to be pumped for Sporting’s pursuit of another MLS Cup title. To visit the series homepage as it expands, head to SportingKC.com/playoffcountdown.
After taking an in-depth look at Sporting’s balanced attack in yesterday’s edition of the playoff countdown, today we examine a midfield corps that boasts veteran experience and promising youth in equal parts.
At the start of the season, select pundits and MLS observers questioned whether Sporting had enough quality and depth in the midfield to make up for the absence of Chilean international Felipe Gutierrez. The club’s 2019 MVP would miss the entire 2020 campaign through injury, leaving a sizable void to fill in the center of the park.
Little did people know that Sporting’s most trusted midfielders—the grizzled, box-to-box Roger Espinoza and the savvy, deep-lying Ilie Sanchez—would be joined by one of the league’s best newcomers in Gadi Kinda plus a slew of emerging homegrown talents to form a group that contributed invaluably to a first-place finish in the Western Conference and the best points per game average in club history.
That’s right—Sporting’s 12-6-3 record yielded a 1.86 points per game clip that stands as the highest mark in the club’s 25-year existence. That accomplishment came, in part, thanks to steady performances from the players listed below.
The 26-year-old Israeli was an absolute revelation in his first season with Sporting. Kinda finished tied for the team lead with six regular season goals and placed second with four assists, starting 16 of 18 appearances over the course of the year. Few would have begrudged the player for taking time to settle into a new league, a new country and a new culture. Instead, Kinda landed MLS Team of the Week honors in Weeks 1 and 2—the only MLS player to do so—and ended the campaign just as he started it, recording two goals and two assists in his final three games.
The two-time World Cup veteran turned 34 last month but continues to make life miserable for opponents with his tireless engine. Espinoza, who ranks among Sporting’s leaders in tackles and duels, also provided multiple goals for just the second time in his 11 seasons at the club. He opened his scoring account in a memorable home-opening win over the Houston Dynamo on March 7 before bagging the game-winner in a 1-0 defeat of FC Cincinnati on Oct. 28.
It should be no coincidence that Sporting’s red-hot 6-1-1 finish to the regular season coincided with Ilie’s excellent form in the holding midfield spot. Following the MLS is Back Tournament in July, he returned to Spain to spend time with his ailing father and missed six games in the process. Sporting went just 2-2-2 during that stretch. Upon his return, and after his father sadly passed away, Ilie flourished on the field. In the 13 games he started this season, Sporting went 10-2-1. In the eight games he didn’t, Sporting were 2-4-2. That tells you all you need to know about Ilie’s value to the team.
The 18-year-old wunderkind has enjoyed his best professional season to date, showcasing his talents in no fewer than three positions as an integral member of Vermes’ 4-3-3 setup. Deployed primarily as a central midfielder, Busio held holding midfield duties during Ilie’s absence and during that time ranked among the MLS leaders in successful passes and tackles won. He has also been used as a winger in attack, and his one goal and three assists suggest that the U.S. youth international is perfectly capable of helping Sporting create goals.
“From game to game, he was able to keep the physical, technical, tactical and psychological (aspects) at a high level,” Vermes said of Busio on MLS ExtraTime last week. “Even now, I don’t want to consider leaving him off the field because he’s played so well. You want to get your best players on the field, and he’s one of those guys.”
After winning Sporting KC II MVP honors in 2019, Hernandez jumped from the USL Championship to MLS in impressive fashion this summer. His impressive 2020 debut against Real Salt Lake in the MLS is Back Tournament marked the start of an increased role for Hernandez, who has started eight and featured in 16 of Sporting’s last 17 matches. The 22-year-old Sporting KC Academy product is often likened to Espinoza for his bulldogged approach in the center of the pitch.
The 19-year-old Sporting KC Academy product has made eight appearances this season, including starts in a pair of results against FC Dallas and Chicago Fire FC. Duke has repeatedly earned Vermes’ praise over the course of 2020, and the general consensus is that we’ll see plenty more of the explosive youngster in the years to come.
A former standout for Sporting KC II and a 2018 USL Championship Young Player of the Year finalist, the American-born Kuzain is regarded as one of Malaysia’s most promising talents. He broke onto the scene when he opened his MLS scoring account in 2018 and has spent all of 2020 competing with the first team, having featured regularly at the USL Championship level from 2017-2019.