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MLS Team Guide: Sporting Kansas City

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Ahead of the 2021 MLS season, Richard Fleming introduces us to the teams set to face the Colorado Rapids. Their oldest rivals are Sporting Kansas City, a team they tackle three times this season.

First season in MLS: 1996 (as Kansas City Wiz)
Honors: MLS Cup winners (2000, 2013), Supporters’ Shield winners (2000), U.S. Open Cup winners (2004, 2012, 2015, 2017)

Stadium: Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, Kansas
Head Coach: Peter Vermes (interim, August 2009, appointed head coach at the end of the season)

History with the Rapids
No other team has a longer history with the Rapids than Kansas City. From the first MLS game for both original franchises – at Arrowhead Stadium on April 13, 1996 – these teams have met a total of 77 times, including nine times in the postseason.

The Wiz won that first meeting 3-0, but the Rapids would avenge that loss with a 4-0 home win three weeks later. That inaugural season, the teams played four times against each other, with the home side victorious on each occasion.

There have been some big games between the pair over the years. The Rapids defeated the then-named Kansas City Wizards in the Western Conference semifinals on their way to the 1997 MLS Cup.

A crowd of 60,142 witnessed a stoppage-time equalizer for the Wizards in the 4th July game in 2003. Former Wizards midfielder Mark Chung had the last word, though, scoring his second of the game for a 3-2 win.

Two years later, 10-man Rapids came from behind to again defeat the Wizards on 4th July. As they had done in 2003, the visitors took the lead. Jean Philippe Peguero was sent off in the 40th minute before Alain Nkong tied the game 12 minutes after the restart. The winner followed soon after when substitute Terry Cooke opened his MLS account in only his fifth game for the club.

The Rapids endured barren spells against Kansas City, including a run of eight games without success between 2000-2002, and nine games without a ‘W’ between 2009-2015.

That latter spell was ended with a 2-1 home win on August 29, 2015 which started a run of five wins in a row and six wins in seven against Sporting KC. The 2-0 success at Sporting Park on October 21, 2015 was a first win in Kansas City since September 14, 2002.

In more recent times, the pendulum has crept back the way of Sporting, with the Rapids managing only two wins in the last nine (2-4-3). This includes a controversial loss inside the Orlando bubble last summer – in which the Rapids had two players sent off – a 1-1 draw at home, and a 4-0 loss on the road. That last meeting was a first game back after more than a month off due to a Covid-enforced shutdown for Robin Fraser’s side.

Head-to-head record: 24-27-17
Last meeting: L 4-0, 10/24/20 at Children’s Mercy Park

2020 Season
Sporting Kansas City finished top of the Western Conference with 39 points from their 21 games. Positions were determined on points per game, which meant SKC were ahead of both Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers (39 points each) due to having played fewer games.

Only Supporters’ Shield-winning Philadelphia Union (14) and Toronto FC (13) – first and second in the Eastern Conference – had more wins than Sporting (12).

They did recover from a mid-season wobble, triggered by a heavy home defeat at the hands of Houston Dynamo when they lost 5-2. That sent them on a run of one win in seven (1-4-2), before ending the regular season strong, going 6-1-1 to secure top billing in the West.

They needed penalties to defeat San Jose Earthquakes in the first round of the playoffs, only to then tumble 3-0 at home to Minnesota United, the conquerors of Colorado.

Offseason Highlights
Johnny Russell has been handed the captain’s armband following the departure of long-serving central defender, Matt Besler. Local lad Besler was out of contract at the end of 2020, and eventually ended up with newcomers Austin FC, bringing to an end 12 seasons with the club.

Departing the club, aside from Besler, was another central defender in Winston Reid. SKC opted not to sign him on a permanent basis after his loan expired at the end of last season. And so, with Reid and Besler gone, the club was looking for at least one central defender.

That replacement appears to be French defender Nicolas Isimat-Mirin. The center back has played over 250 professional matches since 2010, featuring in the top divisions of France, the Netherlands and Turkey. With experience in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League, Isimat-Mirin arrives following a stint in Turkey at Besiktas.

Isimat-Mirin was signed in early February and followed the arrival of his compatriot Remi Walter, a central midfielder with time spent in France and Turkey. The bulk of his career was with Nancy, Troyes, and Nice, until a brief stop in Turkey with Yeni Malatyaspor.

Roger Espinoza signed a new contract, but other experienced heads have parted ways with the club, among them Gerso, Erik Hurtado, and Felipe Gutierrez.

Players To Watch
Gianluca Busio: teammate Graham Zusi was quoted during preseason as suggesting Busio has “kicked it up three or four notches” from last season. Despite his tender years – he’s not 19 until the end of next month – Busio asked for and has been handed the number 10 role. Since making his MLS debut in 2018, Busio has blossomed. He will only get better with age, but already has the technical ability and maturity, so expect more from this teenager in 2021.

Alan Pulido: if Pulido can stay fit and healthy then Sporting should see a decent return on their heavy investment. He played 12 games and 962 minutes in his first season, yet still chipped in with six goals and five assists, joint top scorer with Gadi Kinda and Johnny Russell. He also has the added incentive this year of wanting to work his way back into the international picture for Mexico, with World Cup qualifiers on the horizon.

Johnny Russell: as Designated Players go, Russell may not have the star power of many, but he certainly shines. Entering his fourth season at SKC, the 30-year-old Scotsman sits on 25 goals and 23 assists in 79 appearances, and this year he will have the added responsibility of being club captain, a role he took on at various times last season when Matt Besler was absent. Fiery, passionate, and ready to lead.

Remi Walter: played under France and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira at Nice but his career began as a 17-year-old in Ligue 2 at his hometown team of Nancy. Now 25, the left-footed central midfielder can play as a #8, or a #6 sitting in front of the defenders. In his prime, Walter has bags of experience in Europe but how will that translate to the challenges posed by MLS?

In: Grayson Barber (Homegrown), Ozzie Cisneros (Homegrown), Nicolas Isimat-Mirin (Besiktas, Turkey), Kendall McIntosh (NYRB, via Re-Entry Draft), Kaveh Rad (Homegrown), Brooks Thompson (Homegrown), Remi Walter (Yeni Malatyaspor, Turkey).

Out: Matt Besler (Austin FC), Gerso Fernandes (Jeju United FC, South Korea), Felipe Gutierrez (Universidad Católica, Chile), Erik Hurtado (CF Montreal), Winston Reid (Brentford, England – on loan from West Ham).

Meetings in 2021:
June 23 (away)
August 7 (home)
August 28 (away)

Click HERE for the full Rapids schedule.

Did You Know?
Peter Vermes, the long-serving head coach of Sporting Kansas City, and Rapids legend Marcelo Balboa used to be roommates when with the national side.

Vermes was part of the Rapids team which went to MLS Cup in 1997. He made 89 regular season appearances for the Colorado club, departing for the Kansas City Wizards at the end of the 1999 season.

The rivalry with Kansas City has been fueled by a crisscross of players. Of those to play for both clubs, notable names include Chris Henderson, Mark Chung, Diego Rubio, Benny Feilhaber, Herculez Gomez, Wolde Harris, Kei Kamara, Claudio Lopez, and Peter Vermes.