Sporting KC looking to solidify defense for 2021 success


Nathan Dunn

Sporting KC train at Children’s Mercy Park ahead of their match against Orlando City.

Sporting Kansas City finished top of the MLS Western Conference last season, however, the team’s postseason efforts failed after a 4-0 loss against Minnesota United in the Western Conference Semifinals. With a couple of reinforcements added in the defense and midfield, SKC believes it has the potential for a deep run in the postseason this year.

SKC has already played two games this season, getting a win on the road against the New York Red Bulls and a 1-1 tie against Orlando City in the home opener at Children’s Mercy Park.

Any success this season will be without longtime captain and fan favorite Matt Besler, who signed with MLS expansion side Austin FC. The Overland Park, Kansas, native sat the bench for the last five games of the regular season and all three games of the postseason in 2020, so his departure wasn’t a surprise.

With Besler’s absence on the field last season, the captain’s armband made its rounds through a number of players, including Roger Espinoza, Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell. In preseason, it was announced that Russell would be the captain for 2021.

“I sort of played the tail-end of last season as captain, so that was nice,” Russell said. “To be named captain now, with so many leaders on this team, it’s a nice feeling for me.”

Since coming to Kansas City in 2018, Russell has scored 25 goals in 81 appearances. Due to lingering injury issues this season, Russell has only been able to wear the captain’s armband in two substitute appearances, allowing Espinoza to captain SKC until Russell entered for both matches.

The newest addition to Sporting’s defense is Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, who signed with SKC after spending a couple years with Turkish side Beşiktaş. Peter Vermes, Sporting KC manager and sporting director, explained that finding a good defense is something that is crucial for his team’s success.

“Whenever we’ve had successful seasons in the past, we’ve always probably been a team that’s been in the top three in goals against average,” Vermes said. “Every year, our objective is to try to be in that world. It doesn’t change in that we want to make sure that we want to be a very difficult team to play against defensively.”

They missed that aim last year, as Sporting finished 2020 10th in MLS with a 1.19 goals against average. Sporting will look to stabilize their defense this season with the center back pairing of Isimat-Mirin and Andreu Fontas, who both started the first two games this season.

The first two games of this season have had another notable absence, goalkeeper Tim Melia. Out with a chest injury, Melia was replaced by John Pulskamp. Pulskamp, 19 years old at the time of his debut, became the youngest keeper to play in club history in the season-opening win against the Red Bulls.

“In my preparation with the second team, I think it helped a lot,” Pulskamp said. “Just reminding myself that it’s the same game I’ve always played and looking back on my time with the second team just allowed me to stay focused and feel really good throughout the entire game.”

Melia is hopeful to be available for Sporting’s trip to Real Salt Lake on May 1.