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Position Battles to Watch During Sporting KC’s Preseason

Sporting KC report to preseason this weekend. Let’s look at what position battles will be raging in camp these coming weeks.



Credit: Thad Bell

Remarkably, Sporting Kansas City players are required to report to KC for preseason this Saturday, January 13th. From there, they will undergo various testing and head off to Coral Gables, Florida for the 2024 MLS preseason. While little is known about preseason other than it will be in Florida over two stages, we know players will be battling to secure their spot on the roster and on the depth chart.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what positions might be up for grabs in the coming weeks.

A Depth Chart Primer

Before taking you further down this depth chart rabbit hole, there are a few things worth noting. First, Peter Vermes will tell us that every position is up for grabs. And there is some truth to that. If someone drastically overperforms or someone else dramatically underperforms, spots can shift up and down. However, it’s probably not realistic that guys being paid millions of dollars won’t play. But if someone shows up to preseason out of shape, it’s not beyond PV to send a message by swapping the depth around. It’s happened before.

That said, most of the guys at the top of the roster are veterans and know what is expected of them. If they made the mistake being a little out of shape in the past, they’ve surely learned from that and won’t repeat it. It’s usually the young guys or the new guys that you have to worry about here. And even a bunch of the young guys have been in the system for years (Davis, Pierre, Cisneros, etc.).

I personally tend to think the starters I predicted a couple weeks back are all likely still the starters unless they are hurt, leave the team, or something dramatic happens. So, it’s a little anticlimactic, but most of these battles are further down the roster. Check out that depth chart article if you missed it.

A “Way Too Early” Sporting KC Depth Chart for 2024

That also brings up a fairly important concern, that many of you have likely noticed as well, that the depth of this team is questionable. There are a lot of young, unproven guys that need to step up. The starters are mostly quality, but beyond that there are unknowns.

Right Back

I’ll start with a bit of a stunner. Jake Davis, or JFD has he’s starting to be known, snatched the starting job in 2024 out of nowhere. He was the fourth guy to get a chance at the spot last year, but it was his by the end of the year to the point that club legend Graham Zusi was jettisoned in the offseason. I still think he’s the odds-on favorite to start.

However, Kayden Pierre has been the heir apparent at right back for a couple years. Injuries completely derailed his 2023 season, and he never got a chance to claim the job. He subbed on out of position at left back in the FC Dallas game and got hurt for the rest of the season.

I think Davis probably earned himself some credit with the way he handled things last season, but I wouldn’t rule out Pierre coming in and snatching the job. Hopefully we’ll see them both next season so no one gets run into the ground, and so they push each other to be better.

I’d still give Davis north of a 90 percent chance to land this gig, but I can’t say Pierre has no hope.

Third Center Back

It’s not sexy, but center back is probably set at the top, barring a signing. Andreu Fontas and Dany Rosero were the best two players on the team last year at this spot, and the same five guys are back. That said, at times, their play left something to be desired on the field. It’s plausible someone like Robert Voloder, who is still just 22-years-old, could make a jump through hard work in the offseason. We’ve seen very little of him at left center back and almost none of him paired with a stable back line.

On the right, I think it’s less likely that someone like Robert Castellanos or Chris Rindov take that leap, primarily because Rosero has such a cushion. But it’s Dany’s first offseason and who knows how he’ll come into camp. Fontas on the left knows what to do to be ready, but he’s also going to turn 35 this summer. The team needs to plan for the future.

The real question is, who is the first guy off the bench? Castellanos was that guy in 2023. Partially because of his abilities in the air and his ability to clear balls in general. If Voloder makes a leap, maybe he can be that guy. It’s probably more likely that Voloder is just Fontas’ sub and Casti is Rosero’s sub. But this is why we have preseason. It’s a chance for the young guys to step up.

Backup Defensive Midfielder (#6)

Sporting KC play a single pivot defensive midfielder (#6) and two box-to-box #8s, with the left sided 8 generally being more attacking oriented (e.g. Erik Thommy/Gadi Kinda).

Nemanja Radoja is the ‘write it in pen’ starter at the base of this midfield. The thing is, he’s just not stayed healthy for the last few years of his career. Whoever is second on the depth chart is going to get significant minutes. The obvious answer is Remi Walter. He played there quite a bit in 2022, was the first guy to move back there in most situations when Radoja wasn’t available in 2023 and I’m sure he’s got a head start on that spot.

However, I really like him further up the field and his tireless work rate on defense actually leaves him out of position far too often when he plays defensive midfielder, but it’s an asset as a box-to-box mid. Felipe Hernandez, who got a little chance to play this spot last preseason, is much like Remi in that he works very hard but that drags him out of position if it’s a single pivot d-mid, which SKC often run.

I’m interested to see if Danny Flores, or a player that hasn’t been signed yet, can claim this spot. It’s arguably the most important position in the way that Vermes plays Sporting KC in a 4-3-3 shape. The team really needs to get this right or Radoja needs to defy the odds and play 2,500+ minutes. To tell you how unlikely that is, he’s never done it in his 11-year pro career. He maxed out at 2,417 minutes in league play for Celta Vigo back in the 2016-17 season. He played just 1,713 league minutes last year.

Backup Right Winger

Johnny Russell is the unquestioned starter on the right wing. He’s the captain and he’s entering the final year of his contract with Sporting Kansas City. Behind him is very up in the air.

The presumed backup will be Khiry Shelton, who works very hard, but doesn’t show up on the scoresheet much. The newcomer to the backup race, and the team likely hopes a potential long-term answer at the position, is SKC II signee, Alenis Vargas.

The speedy 20-year-old is also capable of playing center forward and scored six goals while adding five assists across just 21 appearances in MLS Next Pro last year. Considering he didn’t start playing competitive soccer until he was 16 (!!) he’s still a little raw but there is so much growth potential.

Marinos Tzionis has lined up at right wing in the past and he’s got to be considered as an option here. However, he’s far better suited to playing on the left behind the always healthy, iron-lungs of Daniel Salloi. If Tzionis doesn’t take a big step forward this year, it may be his last year in Kansas City.

Backup Left Back

With Logan Ndenbe out for much of the 2024 season, there was a need to backup Tim Leibold on the left side of the defense. It may have seemed like this position was set when the club announced the signing of Zorhan Bassong, but the 2024 SuperDraft put that into question.

According to Vice President of Player Personnel, Brian Bliss, third round pick Jonathan Robinson is in the running for that spot.

“Not trying to make comparisons, or put pressure on anyone, but the duo up at New England with DeJuan Jones and Brandon Bye, this kid is cut from that same cloth, said Bliss. “If he can come in and put it together, there’s a possibility for him to get onto the first team squad with Logan Ndenbe down and out with his knee. We also have Zorhan Bassong who we picked up as a free agent, but this kid could come in and make something out of it.”

We’ve already gotten confirmation that Bassong is on the supplemental roster. The team could seemingly just cut him, though they’d still owe him his salary, without any cap ramifications. If they think Robinson is a better fit, that’s probably the way to go. The minimum salaries at that part of the roster, while equivalent or greater than most of our own annual salaries, are chump change for the billionaire owners.

Whoever gets this spot has a good chance of playing as well. Tim Leibold struggled with his health in 2023 and only played 872 league minutes across 17 appearances (nine starts). He didn’t play much for Hamberger SV the prior two years either. He last had a solid year in 2020-21 when he played 2,583 league minutes. Before his recent dip in minutes, he was consistently putting in over 2,000 per season. Hopefully Leibold will return to that since it’ll be needed for Sporting KC this year.

Keep an Eye Out

Right now, these battles are the definition of unsexy. Hard working, gritty, backup spots versus the excitement of who will actually start games. I could be way off base, but that starting lineup seems pretty firm. The thing that could change that is a big splash signing. The last signing was December 15th, so it’s nearly been a month at this point. But there are four openings still on the roster for moves to be made, not considering potential trades or outgoing transfers.

The KC Soccer Journal should have more on preseason in the coming days.

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