The good news for Sporting Kansas City is that it will boast a similar roster in 2019. Most of the guys who helped Kansas City win the Western Conference in the 2018 regular season before crashing out of the conference final against Portland will return. Every player who started in the season-ending loss to the Timbers is under contract for next season.
That includes Kansas City’s attacking front: Daniel Salloi — the team’s top goal-scorer last season — Johnny Russell and Diego Rubio. Goalkeeper Tim Melia is set to return. Midfielders Felipe Gutierrez, Ilie Sanchez and Roger Espinoza are all under contract for 2019. And the back line is expected to stick around as well: Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi all signed contract extensions. Defender Ike Opara is also under contract for 2019, although ESPN reported that Opara was on the hunt for more money and asked coach Peter Vermes to consider any trade offers.
Things can always change quickly (this is MLS, after all). Someone can catch the Europe bug, or an unexpected trade can happen. All in all though, the vast majority of a team that finished with 62 points in the West will more than likely be back. The only difference will be how much the season-ending loss still stings with each of them.
“Some guys are going to be pissed off a couple days and get back to work right away,” Besler said. “Some guys might be pissed off the entire offseason. Some guys might have already forgotten about it. But I think everybody will use it as individual motivation.”
How SKC lost left a sour taste, even more so than any other season-ending loss. Kansas City dominated the majority of the first half of the second leg and went into halftime with a 1-0 lead (and with two more goals called back). But just minutes into the second half, Portland’s Sebastian Blanco unleashed a curling rocket of a goal that stunned the crowd – and SKC’s players. The Timbers sucked up every ounce of momentum with that goal and used it to win 3-2. They went on to a spot in MLS Cup, where they lost 2-0 to Atlanta.
“I think the goal that Blanco scored shocked everybody,” Espinoza said. “I mean even him, when he shot couldn’t believe it a little bit.”
Nov 25, 2018; Portland, OR, USA; Sporting Kansas City forward Johnny Russell (7) controls a pass as he is guarded by Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara (21) during the first leg of the MLS Western Conference Championship at Providence Park. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)
The shock of that goal, and Portland’s subsequent two goals, still reverberated through SKC’s facilities days after the season-ending match. Players were still trying to come to grips with what happened.
And moving on? That’s got to happen at some point, too.
Zusi said he actually had a dream days afterwards that was essentially a replay of the match.
“Seeing how close we were to that final game, seeing another team celebrate on your field – it’s a tough thing to do,” Zusi said. “(It’s) something we can certainly use as a motivating factor.”
That will be the crux of the next few weeks: how SKC will transition from such a soul-sucking loss to being inspired to play a new season.
It will be a short turnaround this year. The team will only have a few weeks off before heading right back into preseason and preparing for the CONCACAF Champions League in February.
After that, it will be another MLS season.
And while the way 2018 ended is still a bitter pill to swallow, Kansas City will take some comfort in knowing it will return most of the same team for a second try.
“Kind of the unfortunate thing is that we have to start again from scratch,” Zusi said. “It’s not something we’re shying away from by any means; we really can’t wait to get back out there again. But it’s something that we have to realize isn’t going to come easy by any means. Every team is going to start fresh again. It’s on us to recreate what we did this year.”