Rebuilt Sporting Kansas City off to hot start to MLS season

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — When Sporting Kansas City missed the Major League Soccer playoffs for the first time in a decade last season, it left manager Peter Vermes with a little extra time on his hands.

He didn’t spend it mindlessly twiddling his thumbs.

Instead, the uber-competitive Vermes began an offseason overhaul unlike anything the club has experienced in recent memory. Out were longtime midfielder Benny Feilhaber, forward Krisztian Nemeth and defenders Seth Sinovic and Jimmy Medranda, and in their place came a fresh wave of hungry and talented players at all levels of the field

The biggest signing was forward Alan Pulido, who was the top goalscorer for Chivas Guadalajara and came to Kansas City for a record transfer fee approaching $10 million. But nearly as important were the arrivals of forward Khiry Shelton, who spent last season in the Bundesliga, forward Gadi Kinda on loan from Israel, and defenders Roberto Puncec, Amadou Dia and Winston Reid — the latter on loan from West Ham United — to give Sporting KC a fresh new look.

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“The end of each season you make your assessments, right? Of your season. And then you start to make some decisions on whether it’s players you’re keeping or players you’re bringing in,” Vermes said. “No matter who is on the roster, they’re on the roster because I want them to be there, until I get rid of them. I’m just being honest.”

Well, those newcomers are probably safe for awhile.

In the season-opening 3-1 victory in Vancouver last weekend, it was Pulido who found the net first off an assist from fellow newcomer Puncec, and Kinda scoring the go-ahead goal just before halftime. Erik Hurtado finished off the win with a last-minute goal against his former club to give Sporting KC a big lift ahead of their home opener this weekend.

“It’s exactly the way I drew it up,” Vermes said with a smirk. “I think for a number of reasons it’s a big boost for the team, for those individual players, fans, ownership, staff, everyone.”

For Pulido perhaps more than anyone.

The 28-year-old Mexican national team member is viewed as the designated player and center forward with elite scoring potential that Sporting KC has been missing ever since trading away Dom Dwyer. He scored 34 goals across 97 appearances for Guadalajara, and has experience at the game’s highest level having been called up for the 2014 World Cup.

Pulido, who was sought by a number of MLS clubs once he expressed interest in leaving Mexico, also brings along a winning pedigree. He was part of five domestic championship teams and helped win the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League title.

“When you go and ask the owners for a bunch of money in the off-season for transfers and all those guys contributed in the opener, it was fantastic,” Sporting KC President Jake Reid said. “To have Alan score the first goal and Kinda to bang one in as well was fantastic. We’re excited. Great to see that on the road.”

While it was gratifying to see the newcomers contribute on offense, what could well decide whether Sporting KC returns to its place as a perennial contender in the Western Conference will be what happens with its rebuilt defense.

The club has long hung its hat on keeping teams out of the net, but last season the injury riddled club allowed 67 goals, most in the league ahead of only FC Cincinnati. That resulted in a startling minus-18 goal differential and, ultimately, a 10-16-8 regular-season record and an 11th-place finish in the conference.

Shelton and Reid, along with longtime Sporting KC favorite Matt Besler, should improve those numbers.

Shelton had played with the club before heading to Germany, where he spent last season with SC Paderborn 07 in one of the elite leagues in Germany, and brings a certain athleticism and grit to the defense. Reid is the New Zealand captain and World Cup veteran whose experience over a decade with West Ham should prove invaluable.

“We’re a different team in the way we’re going out there. More talent, more passion, and I think we could feel that,” forward Daniel Salloi said. “We started the season well. We had a lot of great signings. Very happy about them.”

Nobody is probably happier than Vermes, who went out on a limb by spending big money to turn over his roster. But the manager also is cautious and pragmatic, pointing out that the season is a months-long grind.

Sporting KC hasn’t even played a home game yet. That happens Saturday against Houston.

“I’m a realist. It’s the first game,” he said. “We have a lot to do, a lot to work on.”

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