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, serves 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 highlights the many reasons to be excited for what’s ahead. To visit the series homepage as it expands, head to SportingKC.com/2021countdown.
Well, would you look at that—we’re into single digits, people! Just nine days remain until Sporting Kansas City raises the curtains on a 2021 MLS regular season that is sure to entertain from beginning to end.
As we hit the stretch run of our countdown series, now is the perfect time to examine nine prevailing storylines that seem likely to define Sporting’s 26th season in Major League Soccer.
1. The 25-Year Anniversary
Over the course of the season, Sporting will celebrate its decorated history as a founding member of MLS. To kick off the campaign, for example, Season Ticket Members will receive a commemorative book as part of their STM gift package called "One Club: The First 25 Years of Major League Soccer in Kansas City." This 208-page hardback book chronicles the modest beginnings and meteoric rise of Sporting through the lens of club legends and passionate supporters alike and will be available to the general public later this year.
On the merchandise side, fans should be licking their chops. MLS has launched its Since ’96 retro collection on MLSstore.com, which will be expanded with new offerings when Sporting celebrates Retro Night against the Colorado Rapids on Aug. 28. Mark my words, folks: this will be the greatest rollout of retro gear yet.
2. The Youth Movement
It’s almost hard to believe that 12 of the 28 players on Sporting’s roster are Homegrown Players. Eleven of them—that’s 39.2 percent of the squad, mind you—have developed in the Sporting KC Academy. No other club in MLS has more of its own Academy products on its roster.
Manager Peter Vermes has said throughout the offseason that the ultimate goal for these youngsters isn’t merely to reach the MLS level. It’s to help Sporting win games. Homegrowns like Gianluca Busio, Jaylin Lindsey, Felipe Hernandez, Wilson Harris and Daniel Salloi could all play huge roles for the team in 2021, and it underscores a trend that has become increasingly prevalent in MLS. Young talent in this league is emerging more prolifically than ever—and high-profile clubs in Europe are starting to take notice.
3. Veterans Afoot
On one end of the spectrum, you have the Academy graduates—many of whom aren’t old enough to enjoy an alcoholic beverage. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have club legends like Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Tim Melia who are in the twilights of their careers and stars such as Alan Pulido and captain Johnny Russell who are north of 30. At this stage of their careers, they know the window of opportunity to win trophies is slowly beginning to close. The segment of the Sporting roster boasts quality and pedigree in equal amounts, and it will be relied upon heavily in the months to come.
4. Parlez-Vous Francais?
The two biggest signings of Sporting’s offseason hail from the land of the 2018 FIFA World Cup champions. Midfielder Remi Walter and center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin were French youth internationals less than a decade ago and both have tremendous experience competing in Ligue 1 as well as other elite leagues in Europe. If Walter and Isimat-Mirin come up big in 2021, Sporting will love their chances of earning a high playoff seed and contending for a championship.
5. Globe Trotters
In the background of a compressed 34-game regular season schedule is perhaps the busiest year of international competitions we have ever seen.
Will we see Pulido join Mexico for the Concacaf Nations League Finals in June or the Concacaf Gold Cup in July? Will we see Russell join Scotland for UEFA Euro this summer? Will Busio get a deserved U-20 or U-23 call-up to the United States? Will Gadi Kinda bolster Israel’s squad ahead of World Cup qualifying later this fall?
No matter what happens, it’s highly probably that a crowded international calendar will impact Sporting’s season in some shape or form.
6. The Battle for International Glory
In case you missed it, Sporting has been tabbed as one of eight clubs to compete in Leagues Cup later this summer. Leagues Cup is a premier international tournament featuring eight premier clubs—four from MLS and four from LIGA MX. Sporting will host a Mexican side to be determined in the quarterfinals in mid-August, with the semifinals and finals of the up-and-coming tournament slated for mid-September.
Leagues Cup gives Sporting the opportunity to win its first major international competition in club history and shift the balance of power in the rivalry between MLS and LIGA MX.
7. The Western Front
Incredibly enough, 31 of Sporting’s 34 regular season matches will come against Western Conference opposition. Vermes’ side will face their 12 fellow Western Conference opponents two or three times each—a bevy of games that includes 16 of Sporting’s 17 road fixtures. The remaining three games will come against Eastern Conference foes—New York and Orlando in the first two weeks of the season and Chicago Fire FC on Sept. 11.
8. The Leader’s Legacy
The person most responsible for Sporting’s abundant success over the last decade is also the longest-tenured manager in MLS history. Thirteen seasons into his reign as head coach, Vermes has become an institution in Kansas City as one of the league’s best managers. He has hoisted four major trophies—the 2013 MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup titles in 2012, 2015 and 2017—finished atop the conference standings four times and led Sporting to nine playoff appearances in the last 10 seasons. Simply put, Vermes has built his team into a perennial championship contender. Adding another championship to the trophy case in 2021 would only solidify his legendary status.
9. Supporters Return
It would be foolish to count any eggs before they hatch, but this summer and fall—knock on wood—could mark the long-awaited return to full stadiums across the country. For the last 12 months, players, coaches and fans alike been longing for capacity crowds and the electric atmospheres that come with them. When the time is right and the conditions are safe, full stadiums will be back. And when they are, we will rejoice like never before.