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Sporting KC projected starting 11 to face D.C. United

Opposition 11 is back to preview Kansas City in the season opener for both sides

The word “rebuild” has been tossed around a few times this offseason when people talk about Sporting Kansas City. It’s a bit odd; yes, the club has two new wide forwards, and there’s talk that defensive midfielder Ilie Sanchez is a game-changer, but other than that? There are a lot of familiar faces from the group D.C. United managed to steal three points from last season.

Even within the new faces, KC has stayed the course. Soony Saad and Igor Juliao played for the Sporks in the distant past (er, 2014). Reserve defender Tyler Pasher and goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas were both signed from the Swope Park Rangers, SKC’s in-house USL affiliate. This was no rebuild; Peter Vermes just addressed the club’s problems on the wings last season, and in Sanchez upgraded at defensive midfield. Things have been tweaked, new ideas implemented, but you will have no trouble recognizing that this is a Vermes SKC team.

All that said, one name is going to jump out at you from this illustration of how their 433 should look.

That’s Graham Zusi listed at right back, just as he was for the US men’s national team during their winter camp. Zusi’s lack of goal threat was one of KC’s problems last year, but he’s still a really good player. If Benny Feilhaber - linked with an offseason departure before opting to stay - had left, Zusi might have been thrust into his position in the midfield. Instead, they’re going to try him as a right back.

On one hand, it could make some sense. Zusi has always been better hitting crosses from the region of the field that a KC right back occupies rather than pushing towards the endline or getting into the box like Vermes requires from his right forward. On the other hand, he has barely played any full games as a defender, and United will surely be looking to give Patrick Nyarko the ball as often as possible for 90 minutes tomorrow.

If this were a must-win game, in fact, I think Vermes would start Saad Abdul-Salaam, who was one of MLS’s best right backs in 2016, and either move Zusi forward or possibly even drop him. However, with 33 games after this one, I think Vermes is just fine with testing things out for the time being. Zusi’s not going to get better at being a right back if he’s not actually playing right back, so KC might just take their lumps in this one.

Tim Melia will carry on in goal, which is...fine for KC. He’ll hold off former United GK Andrew Dykstra, but there are more MLS teams with a better ‘keeper on their roster than Melia than not. Matt Besler, after last season’s struggles, will again start at center back. His partner will probably be Ike Opara, but the towering defender is often injured, and Vermes seems to have more faith in Kevin Ellis than he probably should. Nonetheless, look for Opara to start tomorrow, and he’ll be drawing Steve Birnbaum on set pieces.

Seth Sinovic has won the left back job back after losing it to versatile young Colombian Jimmy Medranda midway through 2016. Medranda was targeted every week - no surprise for a midfielder/forward who suddenly found himself playing as a fullback - but often dealt pretty well with that while adding to KC’s attack. Sinovic is the more solid defender though, and with Zusi on the other side it probably behooves Sporting to start the veteran. Lloyd Sam probably should prepare to get clotheslined along the sideline, and for MLS referees to inexplicably not punish Sinovic appropriately. That said, I think Sam should be able to get the better of this match-up.

Sanchez is arguably Kansas City’s key offseason acquisition. While the wide forwards brought in were discussed far more regularly, their job is to just execute the gameplan more effectively than Zusi, Brad Davis, and Jacob Peterson did last year. Sanchez’s ability to retain possession is supposed to be an improvement over Soni Mustivar, and in the preseason that thought held up. Teams that want to high-press KC may find Sanchez scooping the ball over the top to the speedsters along the front line, but if you stand off, they can string together long spells of possession.

His partners in midfield are no surprise. Feilhaber had reportedly held real talks to sign a pre-contract to move abroad last season, but in November opted to re-sign with KC. He finished the season in great form after struggling for the first 60% of the year, but as always he can be frustrated and thrown off his game by physical play.

Speaking of which, the other longtime KC player in central midfield is Roger Espinoza, the personification of what Vermes wants out of his teams. For all of KC’s talk about possession and attractive soccer, their core priority has always been physical aggression and toughness. Espinoza is a buzzsaw on the field, and his tireless effort at winning the ball back are what lets Feilhaber and Sanchez do their thing without having as much grunt work to do.

Up front, the two more heavily touted offseason additions have established themselves as immediate starters. Gerso Fernandes, the Bissau-Guinean with six seasons in the Portuguese top flight, is a left-footed chance creator who has some real speed. Vermes has tried to use him as an inverted right winger during the preseason, most likely in order to get him more involved as a goal threat. Given that his Wikipedia page lists 157 pro appearances with only 12 goals, that might take some doing.

While Gerso is fast, Latif Blessing is a contender to be one of the speediest players in all of MLS. The 20 year old Ghanaian already has a Golden Boot from his native country’s league, and despite being quite generously listed at 5’7”, he plays a fearless brand of soccer. There is some question, though, about whether he’s cut out to be a wide forward; he may be a more natural fit in a two-forward alignment.

Either way, I have them listed in their inverted role, but Vermes will probably switch their positions depending on how things are going.

Dom Dwyer largely carried KC last season, as few other players ever offered up goals, and Feilhaber only started kicking in assists in the latter parts of summer. He may have paid a price for it, as offseason ankle surgery was seen as a threat to his ability to play at the start of the season. He recovered from that faster than expected, but was recently reported to have a bone bruise in his foot.

Here’s the bad news for United:

Dwyer might not be fully fit, but he’s a tough-minded battler who will still try to be as physical as possible with Birnbaum and Sean Franklin. Don’t be surprised if he checks back to the ball to open up avenues for longer passes to Blessing and Gerso running in behind more often than he ever did last year.

Let’s say, though, that KC is engaged in a smokescreen and Dwyer can’t go. The options are less threatening, to say the least. Soony Saad got some center forward minutes in the preseason, but he’s never been physical enough for what Sporting wants out of the position. His prior MLS experience came as a left forward in this same set-up.

Cameron Porter has been brought up as a potential option, and on paper he makes sense. He’s tall, enthusiastic, and while not outright fast is at least quick enough to make space for himself. The hang-up here is that Vermes has almost exclusively used Porter as a target winger out on the right. Granted, that was with Dwyer available, but it still might be that Vermes doesn’t want him in the middle.

Finally, Daniel Salloi, KC’s Hungarian homegrown player signed by working the MLS rulebook as hard as they possibly could, is a possibility. Since signing, he’s spent time on loan with Swope Park and two different Hungarian clubs, but it appears that Vermes is inclined to give him real minutes in 2017 (though it must be said that Chilean DP Diego Rubio’s torn ACL is probably the biggest factor in that being a possiblity).

Off the bench, it seems highly likely that Saad will get to sub in somewhere along the forward line. Medranda could be used as a replacement for Feilhaber if he injures or tires, though one suspects United would be just fine with that. Medranda could also come in at either wide forward spot, or for Sinovic if the Sporks need a goal. If Vermes wants to protect the lead, look for Abdul-Salaam to come in at right back, either replacing Zusi outright or with Zusi moving up to the right wing.