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 and effective midfield mix in the previous two editions of our playoff countdown, it's time to put an ever-improving defense under the microscope.
If peaking at the right time is the main objective, Sporting Kansas City's rearguard appears to have checked that box. Since the start of October, Manager Peter Vermes' men lead MLS with a 0.63 goals against average and four shutouts. That stretch also includes an active 270-minute shutout streak, which has seen goalkeeper Tim Melia collect three consecutive clean sheets heading into the playoffs.
Over the course of a long and winding MLS campaign, Vermes has called upon numerous defenders in the push for first place. With untimely injuries popping up along the backline, the process hasn't always been easy. Roberto Puncec is the only defender with 13 or more appearances, which ultimately makes Sporting's success all the more impressive. Despite the lack of consistency on and off the pitch, Vermes' men have remained at or near the top of the conference every step of the way.
Our final stop in the positional rundown highlights goalkeeper Tim Melia and the defenders who could play a role in the playoffs. The group will unfortunately be without veteran left back and club legend Graham Zusi, who suffered a season-ending injury last month.
GK Tim Melia
In 20 starts this season, Melia boasts an 11-5-3 record with seven shutouts, 56 saves and a 1.06 goals against average. He is also, inarguably, the premier penalty kick saver in MLS. That could prove decisive in the single-elimination playoffs.
CB Roberto Puncec
The 29-year-old center back has quietly enjoyed an excellent debut season in MLS. Puncec has played the full 90 minutes in all seven of Sporting's shutouts this season and leads the team in passes (910), successful passes (793), interceptions (25), clearances (59) and blocks (11).
LB Amadou Dia
The high-energy left back spent 2015 and 2016 in Kansas City before a trade to Montreal and a three-year stint with Phoenix Rising FC in the USL Championship. Dia returned to Sporting in January and became a regular starter by September.
RB Jaylin Lindsey
The 20-year-old Sporting KC Academy product had to wait until August to make his first appearance of the season, but he has been an invaluable contributor since then. Following an injury to Graham Zusi on Oct. 7, Lindsey started Sporting's final six matches of the campaign. During that period, Sporting went 4-1-1 and posted three shutouts.
LB Luis Martins
Martins began the year brilliantly, tallying an assist in a season-opening win at Vancouver and impressing in a 4-0 defeat of Houston in Week 2. The Portuguese left back experienced an injury setback following the MLS is Back Tournament and has featured sporadically since then, but he did go the full 90 minutes in a Decision Day win at RSL on Nov. 8.
CB Winston Reid
The hulking New Zealand center back is arguably the most talented defender on Sporting's roster. Reid, who boasts almost a decade of experience in the English Premier League with West Ham United, has a 5-1-2 record as a starter. If he can stay fit for the duration of the playoffs, expect Sporting to be awfully tough to break down.
CB Matt Besler
Injuries have hampered Besler's 2020 campaign, but the fact remains that no one on Sporting's roster boasts more playoff experience than the Kansas City native. A club legend and a face of the franchise, Besler has helped lead Sporting to four major championships since 2012. The longtime captain would add a cherry on top with another MLS Cup title.
CB Graham Smith
The skillful center back was excellent at the MLS is Back Tournament and earned a run of regular starts from late July to early September. Smith hasn't featured since Sept. 2, but Sporting would have no concern if he was called upon in the postseason.
CB Andreu Fontas
Fontas offered a feel-good story in the late stages of the season, overcoming a long-term Achilles injury to make his way back into the Sporting lineup. The 31-year-old Spaniard has given an excellent account of himself in three appearances over the last month, notably scoring in a shutout home win over the Colorado Rapids. Like Smith, Fontas hasn't played much in 2020, but he has earned the trust of his teammates and coaches if called upon.