Storylines is excited to see some old friends again this weekend. When Sporting Kansas City comes to town this Saturday, they’ll be bringing with them some of the league’s most experienced players for yet another visit to Allianz Field. They’re not “old,” per se, but SKC’s core certainly isn’t composed of spring chickens; they’ve seen and done a thing or two, and American soccer is better because of their contributions. But as legendary Minnesotan Bob Dylan once said, the times they are a-changin’.
The heart of this Kansas City team has been relatively unchanged for the better part of a decade. Manager Peter Vermes is a club legend, having played for the Wizards from 2000-2002 and taking charge as manager in 2009. His time at the reins has been successful, to say the least, as he became the first person to win MLS Cup with the same club as both a player (2000) and a coach (2013). But behind every great manager is an equally great group of players they rely on.
For most MLS fans, the names Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi are synonymous with the club they’ve each played over 350 matches for. Espinoza first joined in 2008 before leaving for European football in 2012, but his return to Kansas in 2015 has seen the player remain in blue. Zusi has been around since 2009, joining alongside Vermes and sticking around ever since.
Add the likes of Tim Melia (2015-present), Dániel Sallói (2016-present), and Johnny Russell (2018-present), and Sporting’s squad is filled with experienced vets that are truly ingrained into the culture of the club. Other names have come and gone, but there’s something about Children’s Mercy Park that these guys seem to like, and after some truly fantastic accomplishments, the feeling is very likely mutual.
Since 2008, SKC have won the Western Conference four times, narrowly missing out on the Supporters’ Shield each season. They’ve made the playoffs in 11 of the last 15 seasons, won the 2013 MLS Cup, and lifted three US Open Cups. They reached a Concacaf Champions League semifinal in 2019 and saw star strikers Dom Dwyer and Kei Kamara add to league legend. This is a club with a storied history and a reputation for excellence, and their recognizable core of players has been the driving force behind it all.
Lately, though, something’s not adding up.
For a team that has a history of consistency, the recent drop-off has been quite alarming. After a third-place finish in the Western Conference during the 2021 season, Vermes and the boys missed out on the playoffs completely in 2022. Quite frankly, they weren’t even close to making it, wallowing in 12th place in the West with a -12 goal difference. All in all, it was a disappointing year that looks faintly better thanks to a late-season streak that saw them pick up some surprising, though ultimately meaningless, points.
They’ve tried to freshen things up recently, adding talented pieces to the roster and desperately working to make something stick. While their pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo proved fruitless, the additions of Alan Pulido (2020), Gadi Kinda (2021), Erik Thommy (2022), William Agada (2022) and Tim Leibold (2023) have definitely reshaped the squad. Somehow, after all of those signings, the old guard has remained the driving force behind the team’s success and, more recently, their failures.
Despite the new faces, 2022’s trend has continued this season. Currently in 12th in the West, SKC is once again on the outside looking in. However, with six games left in 2023 and just two points separating them from a play-in spot, there’s still hope for one last hurrah left in the boots that built this club.
SKC has built around a solid framework for over a decade. Espinoza, Zusi, and Melia have been fantastic ambassadors of the beautiful game, but one can’t help but wonder when enough is enough. After all that time near the top, it seems that one of Major League Soccer’s most reliable cores is starting to come apart at the seams. This weekend’s match is massive for the playoff hopes of both squads, but it feels like there is far more than just a postseason berth at stake for the club formerly known as the Wizards.
Minnesota United FC vs. Sporting Kansas City
Allianz Field | Saint Paul, Minnesota
09.16.2023 | MLS Game #28
7:30 p.m. CT (Available on MLS Season Pass, 1500 ESPN)