(TNS) — The first half of Sporting Kansas City’s season concluded Saturday with an outing that left much to be desired. Nevertheless, the club opens the second half of the schedule at Real Salt Lake on Wednesday in a first-place tie atop the Western Conference.
At the halfway point, The Star hands out midterm grades and forecasts the second half of the season.
Some consistent scoring from a central forward would push Sporting Kansas City into a top grade, and perhaps a summer transaction will remedy that. But it’s been a sore spot after the club didn’t make a move for a striker in the winter window.
Sporting KC instead has relied on more significant scoring production from wings Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell, two breakout players in the league. Salloi is tied for the team lead in both goals (five) and assists (six) and looks like a true rising star in MLS. Russell, who lines up on the opposite wing, has contributed another five goals in his first MLS season, though after a scorching start, he has not scored since his April 20 hat trick.
Ilie Sanchez received a much-deserved MLS All-Star nod, a bit of a surprise given most of his work can go relatively unnoticed. At defensive midfielder, Sanchez is the steady, calming presence on a team that prefers to play with the ball at its feet. Roger Espinoza already set a career-high with six assists and looks rejuvenated at age 31. But neither Espinoza nor Sanchez have scored during the run of play, and with Felipe Gutierrez out since April with a sports hernia injury, there’s a need for someone to fill that void.
Gutierrez could make a case as one of the most talented players the club has ever had. He's already the highest-paid in franchise history. His return will do wonders for the middle of Sporting KC’s 4-3-3 formation during the stretch run.
After an uncharacteristically shaky start, Sporting KC returned to form. The 18 goals allowed are the second fewest in the Western Conference, even if it remains well behind the pace it set in 2017, when it conceded only 29. Nine of its past 11 opponents scored one goal or fewer. Graham Zusi is headed to his sixth all-star game. Matt Besler remains Matt Besler. Sporting KC will look to nail down its left back position, with Jimmy Medranda slated for a late-summer return.
For the second straight season, Tim Melia was robbed of an all-star appearance. The reigning MLS goalkeeper of the year is tied for the league lead with seven shutouts and ranks second with nine victories. He’s also first in passing accuracy and is tied for second in goals-against average among all keepers with 10 appearances.
Reasons to hope
1. Since it won the MLS Cup in 2013, Sporting KC has wasted some of the best defensive numbers in the league because the offense couldn’t keep pace. No longer. In 2018, the club has scored 31 goals, tied for second in the Western Conference. They're coming from a variety of sources, including ...
2. Sporting KC possesses more depth than it did in the previous four seasons. It has already broken a club record with eight goals from substitutes. This depth affords coach Peter Vermes the chance to provide players such as Russell with a day off during the grind of the season. And given his fitness demands, look for Vermes to utilize the opportunity.
3. At some point, Gutierrez will return to the lineup, and that point is nearing. Sporting KC is in first place in the West despite missing its most productive player. Gutierrez scored five goals from the midfield in his first five MLS matches.
4. All three trophies — the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup — are still in play. Sporting KC has advanced to the quarterfinals of the Open Cup; and it’s five points off Atlanta's pace for Supporters’ Shield.
Causes for concern
1. History. In each of the past three seasons, Sporting KC hit a road block late in the summer. In the months of August, September and October from 2015-17, Sporting KC has put together only one winning month in nine tries, when it went 1-0-2 in September 2016. That's a trend.
2. The combination of the Open Cup and MLS regular season will make for a congested schedule in the coming weeks, and that could cause some tired legs. While Sporting KC is deeper than years’ past, some injuries have cut into that depth. Another extended run in the Open Cup tournament carries the risk of coming at the expense of securing a top seed in the West.
What the experts are saying
ESPN has Sporting KC third in its power rankings, behind Eastern Conference clubs Atlanta and New York Red Bulls.
The MLSsoccer.com power rankings also has Sporting KC third, behind the same two teams.
Soccer America puts Sporting KC fourth.