As Sporting Kansas City prepares for its 26th season as a charter member of Major League Soccer, SportingKC.com is rolling out a 26-day countdown to the start of the 2021 campaign. A mouthwatering opening weekend of MLS action will see Sporting Kansas City visit the New York Red Bulls at 7 p.m. CT on April 17, giving supporters their first look at Manager Peter Vermes’ side since last December.
The 2021 Preseason Countdown, presented by Children’s Mercy, will serve as the comprehensive, go-to preview of everything that awaits Sporting Kansas City in the weeks and months to come. From key storylines and bold predictions to statistical breakdowns and players to watch, the 2021 Preseason Countdown will highlight the many reasons to be excited for what’s ahead. To visit the series homepage as it expands, visit SportingKC.com/2021countdown.
In order to win championships in Major League Soccer, your stars have to shine.
Strikers must be clinical in front of goal. Midfielders must make game-changing plays on both sides of the pitch. Defenders must suffocate the opposition and goalkeepers must bail their teams out with jaw-dropping saves.
With the annual injection of Targeted Allocation Money, increased financial backing and an ever-strengthening pool of talent, MLS is as competitive now as it ever has been. And like so many other clubs around the league, Sporting Kansas City appears set to ride a select number of thoroughbreds over the course of 2021 in a bid to win silverware.
In the space below, we highlight five stars who are poised to play leading roles for Sporting in the months to come. That is to say, if these five all have standout seasons in 2021, Manager Peter Vermes will like his chances of painting the wall in the northwest corner of Children's Mercy Park.
Goalkeeper Tim Melia
Tim Melia had big shoes to fill when, in 2015, the longtime MLS backup was named Sporting's starter. In the six years since then, the goalkeeper has been the centerpiece of one of Major League Soccer's greatest stories. From League Pool Goalkeeper to MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the late-blooming Melia is among the very best in the business.
A lot has been written and said about Melia's perfect 6-0 record in penalty shootouts as a pro. We've seen that translate in a big way, as Sporting needed shootout victories during their runs to the 2015 and 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title runs. But Melia is more than just a penalty-saving expert. Over the course of six seasons, he has been one of the most consistent and well-rounded keepers in MLS based on goals against average, shutouts and save percentage.
While another strong year from Melia wouldn't do much to inflate an already monstrous legacy, it would work wonders in Sporting's push for trophies.
Defender Nicolas Isimat-Mirin
The acquisition of 29-year-old center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin represented one of Sporting Kansas City’s biggest splashes this offseason. The former French youth international boasts a wealth of experience in some of Europe’s top leagues and has competed in premier club competitions such as the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League.
The expectations, understandably, are high. The need for Isimat-Mirin to make an instant impact is also high, as Sporting's defensive inconsistencies have popped up periodically over the last two seasons. If the Frenchman is an instant hit, serving as a dominant and stabilizing force along the backline, Sporting will love their chances of once again contending at the top of the Western Conference.
Midfielder Remi Walter
From one high-profile French newcomer to another. Remi Walter figures to be a major piece of Sporting's midfield puzzle, predicating his game on precise passing, positional awareness and a tireless work rate. That, coupled with the fact that he can play as a deep-lying No. 6 or a box-to-box No. 8, should translate well into Manager Peter Vermes' up-tempo 4-3-3 system. Like Isimat-Mirin, Walter has undeniable pedigree, having competed in Ligue 1 for Nice.
Walter may not load up on goals and assists, but his presence in the center of the park will be instrumental for Sporting this season.
"Remi is a very astute soccer player in the game," Vermes said following the midfielder's preseason debut last weekend. "He reads situations that are happening and really knows how to deal with them. I’ve been very satisfied and very happy with his performances and he brings a lot of quality to the team."
Forward Johnny Russell
There's a new captain in town, folks.
A warrior on the field, a jokester in the locker room, a humanitarian in the community and a leader in more ways than one, Johnny Russell has become a beloved fan favorite during his successful tenure in Kansas City. Adding to the trophy cabinet in 2021 would cement his legacy as a living legend at the club, and that's precisely what the newly appointed captain will set out to do in the months to come.
The 30-year-old Scottish international has amassed 27 goals and 30 assists in 96 competitive matches for Sporting, guiding the team to first-place finishes in the Western Conference in 2018 and 2020. Another monster season from Russell would give Sporting one of the most unique and devastating attacking pieces in MLS.
Forward Alan Pulido
MLS Cup champions tend to have pretty darn good center forwards. Columbus Crew SC and Gyasi Zardes. Seattle Sounders FC and Raul Ruidiaz. Atlanta United FC and Josef Martinez. Toronto FC and Jozy Altidore. Is Alan Pulido, Sporting's club-record signing and an uber-talented Mexican international, the next on the list?
It's a fair question to ask. In all competitions last season, Pulido racked up seven goals and five assists in 14 matches. Extrapolate that over the course of 34 matches, or a full MLS season, and you get 17 goals and 12 assists. Those are MLS MVP-type numbers. It would be asking a lot for Pulido to sustain that level over an entire seven-month campaign, but if 2020 was any indication, he's certainly capable of it.
Simply put, if Pulido remains a consistent presence in the lineup and continues to score and create goals, Sporting has at its disposal one of the league's very best players and a bona fide MLS MVP contender.