The playoffs aren’t anything new to Sporting Kansas City—the club is poised for its ninth appearance in ten years. This year’s club is tenacious, frequently winning from behind.
Sporting KC is one of the favorites to win the 2021 Major League Soccer Cup, but the club has changed since its 2013 victory. If you haven’t been paying attention, it’s not too late to slip in before the excitement builds.
Kansas City spoke with Chad Smith, an editor for the blog The Blue Testament, about what newcomers should know to blend in at the Blue Hell as we begin the run-up to the playoffs on November 19.
The key players
Striker Alan Pulido is the club’s top weapon. The former Guadalajara starter is the most expensive transfer in the club’s history, and for good reason. He’s a reliable player, and he recently landed a spot on Mexico’s national squad. Forward Dániel Sallói continues to find the back of the net, leading the club in goals scored as of August.
Since old favorite Matt Besler left for Austin FC, forward Johnny Russell has taken the helm of team captain. Goalkeeper Tim Melia is a mainstay for Sporting. “He’s good for one or two really exceptional saves a game,” Smith says. Phenom Gianluca Busio is already gone from the midfield. The nineteen-year-old homegrown star was transferred in August to Italian top-tier club Venezia FC. Sporting signed José Mauri as backup. Other young players, such as Cameron Duke and Felipe Hernandez, might step up as well. Smith says it’ll take a group effort to fill the hole left by Busio.
In terms of team influence and presence, head coach Peter Vermes is Sporting’s Andy Reid. “No man has more of a stamp on a team in Major League Soccer than Peter Vermes,” Smith says. “He has everyone playing the same style. He has so much control over the team, and he seems so intense and fierce on the sideline.”
Holding the top job since 2009, Vermes is the longest-tenured head coach in MLS. He’s won four trophies with the club and keeps Sporting KC consistently competing. “Kansas City should be grateful they have him on the team,” Smith says.
Since 2013, Sporting KC’s style of play has been overhauled. Gone are the days of running hard and “fouling like crazy,” Smith says. Instead, he describes their strategy as “pretty soccer,” in which they aim to keep possession of the ball to create defensive gaps in the opposing team. The team pushes forward instead of playing behind the band. “It makes for exciting games, but it can be stressful as a fan,” Smith says.
Unlike other leagues in the United States, MLS is not the top level of its sport in the world. However, the quality of play is rising. Clubs are spending more on talented players. Every team now has its own youth academy, which means more great players being found at younger ages. “Sporting KC had a down year in 2019, but I would still pick that team over the 2013 MLS cup team any day,” Smith says.
Sporting’s still on the hunt for the Supporter’s Shield, which is awarded to top MLS team at the end of the regular season. But to win it, they’ll have to edge out the Seattle Sounders, who they defeated on the road in July.
In the past, Sporting’s played intense, important matches against Real Salt Lake and Houston Dynamo. The club doesn’t have any geographic rivals, but that might change when St. Louis City SC enters the league in 2023. “Fans will be making trips to each other’s stadiums, so it should make for a fun matchup,” Smith says.
The best way to buy the hype is simply going to a match. The club’s supporter’s groups—the spirited Cauldron in the north stands and the family-friendly South Stand SC—lead the stadium in chants and sprawl out banners before matches called tifos. “The hardcore fans are just on another level,” Smith says. “Chanting for the entire ninety minutes of the game, and the drums and the swinging, it’s not something you see in other sports.”