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Sporting KC Have a Midfield Problem Against Vancouver

Sporting Kansas City are missing up to four of their six rostered midfielders ahead of the Vancouver Whitecaps game. What should they do?

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Credit: Thad Bell

Looking at the 28-man Sporting Kansas City roster and you immediately notice something. Midfielder is the thinnest position on the team. They have only six players under contract that consistently play in the midfield: Erik Thommy, Nemanja Radoja, Remi Walter, Memo Rodriguez, Felipe Hernandez and the seldom used Danny Flores.

If you just look at the first three guys – Thommy, Radoja and Walter – that’s a solid base. The problem is two of the three are likely to be missing on Wednesday and perhaps beyond that game. Erik Thommy went down early this past Saturday against the Portland Timbers with an apparent hamstring injury. It seems likely that’ll cost him at least a few games, though no word as of this writing. (Update: He’s out multiple weeks.)

Remi Walter has been out since this nasty challenge in the last meeting with Minnesota United where he took a knee on knee hit and has yet to see the field since.

And now Memo Rodriguez, Walter’s recent replacement, will miss Wednesday’s game due to a suspension for yellow card accumulation.

That leaves just three healthy midfielders and a bunch of guys that could play out of position when Sporting KC can’t really afford to drop anymore points. Particularly at home. Let’s look at the options for the team to sort things out against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Sporting KC v Minnesota United: Preview, Injuries & Predictions

Remi Just Returns

It’s possible Walter is ready to go. He’s been said to be at practice doing drills off to the side but hasn’t been in the portion of practice open to the media. Dany Rosero was in the same boat and progressed quickly to get back on the field.

Even if Walter can go, I suspect he doesn’t have 90 minutes in him quite yet, so one of the below options would still be on the table for a portion of the game.

Update 5/29/2024: Just kidding about Remi, he’s officially listed as out. Maybe he’ll make it back for the weekend. 

SKC II Loan

The MLS Roster Rules have a provision built in called the Affiliate Short-Term Agreement. Basically, a player who is 25 or younger can be loaned to the first team up to four times per season and appear in up to two games.

There are two pretty good options on Sporting KC II that could make the leap. Ethan Bryant, who fans may be familiar with for his 2023 US Open Cup loan against the Tulsa Athletic. But he’s actually my less preferred option.

Anything but Second: The Paradox and Potential of Ethan Bryant

I think the team should loan up midfielder Kamron Habibullah who some have compared to his SKC II head coach, Benny Feilhaber. Habibullah is just 20-years-old and has already represented Canada and Uzbekistan at international youth levels (U-17 and U-20). In just nine games played in MLS Next Pro this season he leads the team in scoring (7) and assists (4).

After the loss to Portland, Vermes said the team missed the attacking presence of Thommy in the midfield. He was complimentary of Rodriguez and Hernandez but said neither of them are attacking midfielders. Habibullah is an attacking midfielder.

This is my favorite option. Play Habibullah against his former team and see if his MLS Next Pro form can make the leap to the first team. He’ll be motivated to show Vancouver shouldn’t have declined his option and may just go off. What do you have to lose?

Fullback to the Midfield

The team actually has two fullbacks that are capable midfielders. Jake Davis was a midfielder converted to right back. And Tim Leibold is a much more attacking player than he is a natural defender. In fact, there has been a bit of a tactical shift the last couple games that has seen Leibold rotate into the midfield for portions of the game.

Davis probably makes the most sense in that he is an actual midfielder, but with his backup Kayden Pierre hurt, that’s limiting. I suppose Khiry Shelton can play right back, but that wouldn’t be my preference.

Leibold’s backup, Zorhan Bassong, is healthy and available, so maybe Leibold shifts over. But either way, Davis and Leibold aren’t the “attacking” style midfielders that PV professed to want. But those are options in a pinch of the others fall through during the game.

Return to the 4-2-3-1 (Please No!)

At times both Alan Pulido and Marinos Tzionis have played in the middle of the attacking portion of the “three” in the 4-2-3-1 as an attacking midfielder. It’s even generated a few goals when Pulido was there. But it’s 100 percent not working.

Sporting KC have rolled out the 4-2-3-1 five times and have yet to win. They are 0-3-2 (2 points) in that formation. Maybe the formation isn’t the problem, but it feels like the personnel they are using are. Pulido doesn’t work hard enough defensively, and it leaves the two defensive midfielders scrambling. Tzionis is basically in the same boat defensively but a worse attacker than Pulido.

It also doesn’t play to Nemanja Radoja’s strengths. He’s a single pivot midfielder at the base of an inverted triangle. Playing next to someone is fine, but I’d say less effective. Additionally, Thommy has been the wide right midfielder most of the time, though it shouldn’t be a stretch for Russell to fill that role.

Flores to Start?

Danny Flores joined Sporting KC ahead of the 2023 season. In that time, he’s only appeared in one league game for a mere six minutes. That was at the end of the 4-1 blowout loss to the Seattle Sounders that really started the downfall early in 2023.

He’s mostly been with Sporting KC II since joining the team, but even there only has five starts (eight appearances) for 359 minutes this year. He’s below both Bryant and Habibullah in minutes and goal contributions.

He’s also more of a defensive or box-to-box midfielder than an attacker. I think he’s probably on the bench for this game, but I doubt he starts.

Update 5/29/2024: Opportunity lost to get some more MLS minutes as Flores is out because he’s in the concussion protocol. 

What to Expect?

I honestly don’t know. Going back to the failing 4-2-3-1 seems illogical but the most likely. On the most recent For the Glory KC, Sheena joked (I think!) that Shelton will play in the midfield. That feels like a bad idea.

Hernandez and Radoja should be locks to start but beyond that it’s all up in the air. The team has so many more problems than just the midfield. Let’s give Habibullah or Bryant a chance and see what happens! I can’t get any worse.

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