There’s a weird phenomenon floating around Major League Soccer national media right now.
Sporting Kansas City, the No. 1 seed from the Western Conference in 2020, is being pegged as a candidate to tumble down the standings in 2021.
A handful of journalists have Sporting KC finishing anywhere from fifth to seventh in the standings. Austin FC broadcaster Michael Lahoud even predicted Sporting KC will finish in 10th place in the West in 2021.
I’m here to tell you that Sporting KC will earn a top-four finish this season and host at least one playoff game at Children’s Mercy Park.
First and foremost, it is worth noting that 2020’s standings can be seen as a little misleading. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, SKC didn’t have to face some of the top teams in the league including MLS Cup winners Colombus, runners-up Seattle or any other Western Conference powerhouses such as Portland and LAFC.
That’s leading many to believe that due to a supposed easier schedule last season, KC was handed an easier path to the top.
But ultimately, there are no easy games in MLS. Yes, some teams are tougher than others, but you can only beat what’s put in front of you. And Sporting KC beat what was put in front of them through the course of the season and earned its No. 1 seed.
Sporting will be hard-pressed to squeeze into the top three this season — Portland, LAFC and Seattle are all MLS Cup contenders and will be fighting for the top three spots.
But even in KC struggles to keep up with that crowd, there is still the No. 4 seed which guarantees a home playoff game and Sporting KC looks to at least be the best of the rest.
Only a few teams that will push KC have made major moves, namely Colorado acquiring Michael Barrios from Dallas while the Houston Dynamo traded for centerback Tim Parker from the New York Red Bulls.
Minnesota United is also in talks to bring in Argentinian Franco Fragapane but he will only replace Kevin Molino who left for Colombus.
Meanwhile, Sporting KC has only improved in bringing in a pair of major names from Europe to bolster the squad.
Defensively, the club has signed Frenchman Nicolas Isimat-Mirin who arrives with multiple Dutch Eredivisie titles to his name as well as a handful of UEFA Champions League appearances.
Alongside him in the centerback rotation is Roberto Puncec who led the line in 2020 as well as Andreu Fontas who is finally healthy heading back into 2021.
There are no fireworks out wide in defense, but there is reliability. Once Graham Zusi recovers from an ankle injury that he sustained last season, SKC can look toward a rotation of him and Jaylin Lindsey on the right as well as Lindsey, Amadou Dia and Luis Martins on the left.
SKC has gotten stronger in the midfield, too.
The only midfield loss the club suffered from 2020 is former designated player Felipe Gutierrez. But the Chilean didn’t play a single minute last season due to season-ending surgery and the club wasn’t willing to renew his contract due to uncertainty on if he could return to pre-surgery form.
Sporting has filled the “hole” left by Gutierrez with Frenchman Remi Walter who has experience in both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. Walter can play both the eight and the six and will most likely feature in both this season.
Alongside him is the ever-consistent Ilie Sanchez at defensive midfield as well as a handful of quality center mids including veteran Roger Espinoza, wonderkid Gianluca Busio and new designated player Gadi Kinda.
Busio and Kinda offer a terrifying attacking threat from the midfield, while both Sanchez and Walter will be capable of holding down the fort behind them.
As for the attack, Sporting scored the fourth-most goals in the Western Conference (38) in 2020, leaving little to be worried about in 2021.
New captain Johnny Russell only continues to improve as he grows into his leadership role while star forward Alan Pulido can produce an MVP and golden boot-winning season if he stays healthy.
The only concern is at left-wing, where Sporting lost Gerso Fernandes after not agreeing on a new contract with him. That could mean a revival of Daniel Salloi’s career, or Khiry Shelton could finally grow comfortable on the left side of the attack and make that position his own.
Sporting Kansas City may not be an outright MLS Cup favorite this season — BetMGM has Sporting KC as the seventh favorite for the championship at +1600 — but there’s absolutely no reason that national media should be ranking them so low.
I typically say that predicting and betting is a fool’s game. But in 2021, Sporting KC is a lock for a top-four finish in the West.