Throughout the global footballing world, Cup competitions are unique. They present a diversion from league competition, maybe a welcomed diversion due to struggles. Cup competitions can mean new life; they most definitely present opportunities.
“Will there be opportunities for young players [during Leagues Cup]?” asked a reporter after Sporting Kansas City’s Tuesday training at Compass Minerals National Performance Center.
Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes replied about the competition that begins Sunday night, July 23, at FC Cincinnati, “We will try to put out a team out there to win the game. It has nothing to do with young or old. [It’s] best guys up.”
Minutes prior, as Sporting’s current “backup” goalkeeper, John Pulskamp, and I strode through the grass on our way to cover from the coming thunderstorm, the California-native had stated, “I made up my mind early in my soccer career – at 12 or 13 – and had serious talks with my parents and with myself: ‘If I’m going to do this, if I’m going to pursue this, I’m not taking any shortcuts.’”
Last season, the then 21-year-old Pulskamp gained traction as he was rooted in goal for 12 of Kansas City’s final 14 matches, gaining three shutouts and helping the team to a 5-4-3 record for 18 points in that span. The starting spot seemed his to lose. But a position is to be claimed, not just held onto.
With the assumed moniker of Sporting’s “goalkeeper of the future”, Pulskamp started the first five matches of 2023. Though certainly not all his doing, Sporting began the season with three losses, two draws, and no wins. The worrying stat of 18 goals allowed in the 12 games in 2022 continued with seven goals allowed in those five.
Change must occur amidst struggle. Thus, perhaps a victim of the team’s poor run of form, Pulskamp has not started for the first team since that five-match stretch ended in late March.
“We ought to head in,“ I said as we stood talking just outside the middle training pitch, not yet making our way to cover.
“Yah, lightning is coming,” Pulskamp acknowledged before continuing.
“I come from a very driven family, a very successful family both in sports and other worldly endeavors. I come from a household where there is a high standard, and that standard is whatever you do – it doesn’t matter what you do – but whatever you do, you give it a true 100% and you do it to the best of your ability and you strive to become the best at whatever it is you choose to do. That was instilled in me since I was very young.”
OH MY PULSKAMP DOUBLE SAVE ❌❌ pic.twitter.com/194bpGT336
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 22, 2022
Except, Pulskamp did start in the two Lamar Hunt US Open Cup matches: a 3-0 home win in late April and a 1-0 road loss in early May. To glean more Cup opportunities, one can go back to 2021 for a one-off Leagues Cup home match v. Liga MX club Leon. Vermes put out a heavily rotated starting eleven, which included Pulskamp, due to his side having played seven matches in 22 days. However, that Leagues Cup match was of a much different ilk, one without the World Cup style tournament and the financial significance of 2023’s iteration.
In the last 28 days, Sporting Kansas City has played seven matches. One win, three losses, and three draws have been the results. Goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh has not exactly been the “hot hand” for Vermes, who tends to run with what is working. Although he has been in the net for the most minutes between he, veteran Tim Melia, and Pulskamp, McIntosh’s goals allowed is the highest at a 1.51 GAA.
“I think it was poor defending on our part on both goals. I also thought that we also could have done better just from a shot stopping perspective, especially the second one,” were Vermes’ words after Kansas City’s 2-1 loss at Austin FC last Saturday night.
Pulskamp has been getting games with SKCII. The second team is 3-1-3 in their last seven, and Pulskamp has been focused on: “Being clean and sharp and making good decisions, especially in distribution. And playing fast, creating counterattacks and sparking the attack from my hands and my feet.”
Pulskamp, of course, daily plies his trade with the first team on the field, and off the field. Self-admittedly a big voice, he uses it like a veteran. “We have a very good locker room. That is one of the strongest attributes of this team; the camaraderie is very, very tight. Where I fit into that is just encouraging guys, especially in recent times,” he said, sounding the knowledge that every point is “crucial” for 11th place KC. “Not being on the field, all I can do is encourage. Whether that’s to Kendall or the guys playing in front of him, I try to keep it positive when things are bad, but also give a dose of reality when it’s needed. You can’t lie to yourself and keep it positive all the time, sometimes you need to have those serious conversations.”
“At what point does maybe a goalie change happen?” Vermes was asked by KCSoccerJournal.com’s @PlayFor90.
“I’m not going to sit here and talk about a goalie change. What I will say is that I think that there are chances that happen in games. There are goals that happen and sometimes, for sure, a goalkeeper can make a better save. There’s no doubt. And then there are other ones that there’s really not much he can do… So I’m more concerned about the defending in those situations.”
Pulskamp is there, with the first team. But he’s not there, not the number one goalkeeper. Being on the fringe is not enough for one as talented and driven as the ‘Big Bear’.
“It’s been a tough year, just mentally on and off the field. I’m wise enough to know that is part of the game, and part of a career, and part of a life. You are going to have years where you are on top of the world, and you are going to have years where it’s a bit of a struggle,” he reflected. “Right now, I’m going through a patch where, yah, it’s been tough. And it’s just a matter of getting through it.”
“Has there been an experience in the past that helps you get through this [struggle]?” I asked.
“Yah. Of course, whether it’s being maybe left off certain national team rosters as a youth. Or [feeling] held back a little bit at LA Galaxy. Things like that, it’s kind of been the story of my career for a long time: You’re there and rated highly but not quite given fully what I can achieve. It’s really just another one of those situations.”
Knowing how fans, and some pundits, think, I had to inquire. “Is being in Vermes’ doghouse a thing?
“It might be, but I don’t believe I am,” replied Pulskamp.
“How is the competition between John and Kendall?” I asked Vermes in the post-Tuesday training media availability.
“Good, and Tim is now getting back into training.
“Towards the end of this month and going into Leagues Cup, we will be getting the majority of our players. They should all be in a place where hopefully they will be ready not only in Leagues Cup but towards the last push of the season,” Vermes stated, adding later that Melia was “in certain aspects [of training]” and may be available for the second Leagues Cup match (at home Monday evening, July 31, versus Chivas de Guadalajara).
“As a player, we can prep in the week as if we are playing. Obviously, we know at the end of the day it’s the manager’s decision. Right now, it’s just prepping as if I am playing, doing my training, working hard in prep, doing nothing different from if I was playing… Just going into [Leagues Cup] with the mentality I always have,” Pulskamp conveyed.
Pulskamp, during our entire conversation, spoke with an edge of determination in his voice, one of being on a mission and earning his reward.
“If and when I get my shot to go back in there, it’s a matter of, in the big moments, [to] be at your best. When it’s a one-goal game, tie game, that’s when you have to be sharp, that’s when you have to do your part for the team. [I am] focusing and trying to prepare myself, so when that opportunity does come I can help the team.”
However, the final question of “What drives the Big Bear?” drew out the passionate responses of the serious talks with his parents and himself when he was a youth and of his family’s high standard of “strive to become the best at whatever it is you choose to do” instilled in him. As we finally reached cover from the storm, the 22-year-old Pulskamp closed:
“That’s really what drives me. If I am going to sacrifice all the things I’ve sacrificed – being away from family from a young age, not seeing them as much as I’d like, countless other things I can go on about all the things that people don’t see, the sacrifices we make – if I’m going to do all that, then best believe I am going to truly strive to be the best I can or else I’m not going to do it; I’ll do something else.”