Sporting KC aims to avoid another winless start in 2024 season

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When sports teams talk about the past being the past, they don’t truly forgive and forget.

For Sporting Kansas City, reflecting on the past gives them a bright look ahead to what’s presently in front of them.

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The club started the 2023 season with a 10-game winless streak, and injuries played a large part in that start.

Mexican striker Alan Pulido missed the first five matches and wasn’t performing at his best until midway through the season as he returned from a knee injury.

Midfielder Tim Leibold was in and out of the lineup and forward Willy Agada only played in 14 matches after sitting out the bulk of the season with a fractured tibia.

Pulido, Leiold, captain Johnny Russell, midfielder Gadi Kinda, goalkeeper Tim Melia, midfielder Nemanja Radoja and defender Logan Ndenbe all missed significant time at the beginning of the season before the team scratched and clawed its way to the MLS Cup Western Conference semifinals.

The playoff journey included a clean sweep over St. Louis City SC in Round One after a Wild Card win.

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As Sporting begins the 2024 season, the injury list is slim.

Ndenbe is working his way back from a torn ACL he suffered in Game 2 of Round One, and forward Khiry Shelton is working to return from ankle surgery to repair a high ankle sprain he suffered earlier this month.

“This was my 16th preseason with the team. The last two before this were not fun,” head coach Peter Vermes said.

“Because whenever you look to the sideline in preseason, you’d have like anywhere between eight and 12 guys sitting on the side rehabbing and for long-term injuries, not just short-term. And most of those guys were all starters on a regular basis. And so that was that had a real impact in a lot of ways.

“It was really enjoyable from that perspective because all the guys that you want to play are basically there except for [Shelton and Ndenbe].”

Vermes expects Shelton back in about five weeks and Ndenbe back in the early part of the summer.

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On Saturday, Sporting opens its season on the road against Houston Dynamo FC. Houston is without one of its top players in midfielder Hector Herrera (named to 2023 MLS Best XI), forward Nelson Quiñónes and forward Sebastián Ferreira.

Houston has also already played a match this season in the CONCACAF Champions Cup against St. Louis on Tuesday; they lost 2-1.

With injuries not a concern at the moment, Vermes and his team are excited to see where this season can take them after last year’s comeback effort.

“Last year is not important and doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Melia said Thursday.

“From a group from a mental side to kind of overcome such a challenge that we put ourselves in but to overcome a challenge like that and to grow and develop and learn about each other, I think should give us an incredible amount of confidence going into this season. It should also give us an awareness that we have a ton of quality.

“We are capable of a lot of things, but we got to make sure that first, we are the most competitive team in terms of we’re competing for every little roll of the ball from Game One all the way through hopefully playoffs in a long stretch with that.”

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For Vermes, he usually takes the first 10 games to try to understand his team. He wants to see his SKC team give a lot of effort and compete along with the main goal of every match: a win.

“First off the effort and the competitiveness to be at a good level one in which you know helps you in this league to dominate another team if you can,” he said.

The 57-year-old coach also wants to see his team execute in all five phases of the game: offense, defense, set pieces, counter-attack and counter-defense.

“Really trying to execute in some of the things that we talked about knowing full well that a guy is going to miss a pass, a guy is going to mis-trap a ball, kick a ball out of bounds, these different things are going to happen. And I’ll be tolerant of that. As long as we’re proactive. Like we’re, we’re taking the initiative,” Vermes said.

“I want to see bravery in the way that we play. I want to be us as much as possible in the game.”

The season opener is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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