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Five burning questions as Sporting KC looks to 2024 MLS opener at Houston Dynamo

Ahead of Sporting Kansas City’s first match of the 2024 Major League Soccer season, The Star sat down with manager Peter Vermes to discuss some of the hot topics on his plate.

Here’s a Q&A with answers to some burning questions ahead of Sporting KC’s 2024 MLS season opener on Saturday at the Houston Dynamo (7:30 p.m. Central Time)::

Can Sporting KC avoid another horrid start?

Sporting’s start to the 2023 season was historic — for all the wrong reasons.

The team went winless through 10 matches and scored just three in that span, creating a massive hole for the rest of Sporting’s 2023 campaign.

But that’s old news now, as Vermes sees it.

“Last year’s gone for me,” he said.

The team showed great resilience after that horrid start, reaching the postseason and doing a fair amount of damage in the playoffs.

Injuries had a lot to do with Sporting’s abysmal early showing last year. Vermes dealt with a litany of them.

Captain Johnny Russell was a late injury before the first game, Nemanja Radoja was still being integrated to the squad and Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda had just resumed full training sessions after devastating injuries the year prior.

“For the first third of the season, that’s all I ever talked about was the injuries,” Vermes said. “And I’m the one who believed that once all of our players came back, we have a really good roster.

“I’m not gonna shy away from this,” he added. “I was right.”

Sporting would go on to accumulate the best record in MLS’ Western Conference after that opening 10-match slide. KC made it to the Western Conference Semifinals and was perhaps one call away from getting to the conference finals.

The start to this season should be different for Sporting KC. Vermes’ side is the healthiest it has been to start a season since 2020.

“I think everyone came into preseason fit and determined to make sure that we don’t start off the season like we did last year,” player Jake Davis said.

How will Sporting KC fill its designated player spot?

There wasn’t much movement in and out for Sporting KC this offseason.

The biggest hole was created by the departure of Gadi Kinda. He was capable of being marvelous on the field, but his time in Kansas City was marked by injuries and issues of fitness.

With Kinda gone and competing in Israel again, Sporting KC has an open spot for a so-called designated player.

And Vernes has been trying to fill it. The manager said the club investigated potential deals with four players this offseason before entering the race for Kellyn Acosta, who instead chose a free-agent contract with the Chicago Fire.

Two of those four players, Vermes explained, wound up signing elsewhere for more money than Sporting KC wanted to spend.

“I would love to always get a guy in the winter window so that he can be with us in preseason,” Vermes said. “But it doesn’t always work that way.”

A summer signing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, anyway. Two years ago, the idea of adding another designated player, let alone an attacking midfielder, wasn’t on Vermes radar — until it had to be.

If you’ll recall, Vermes went out and nabbed Erik Thommy in summer 2022 because Kinda needed surgery. The bright side of adding a player like Thommy during the summer is that no transfer fee was required: He was out of contract with Stuttgart in Germany.

One of the benefits to a summer move, is that it opens up a world of out of contract players, similar to Thommy’s situation with Stuttgart, that might be interested in a move to MLS and don’t require dealing with another club for transfer fee negotiations.

Ultimately, Vermes said, fit is critical when filling an open DP spot, whether that happens during the primary window, which closes on April 23, or the secondary “summer” window opening July 18.

“You’re trying to get the right fit because it’s a very important player within the team,” Vermes said. “There’s a lot of investment in that position normally. And so you’re probably doing (the contract) at a minimum three years, if not four years. You have to make sure that it’s a good decision.”

OK, so who replaces Gadi Kinda?

Speaking of Kinda, Sporting already has a solution on the roster: the aforementioned Thommy.

Actually, considering minutes played over the last two years, Thommy has more than shouldered that load already.

Thommy played a little over 3,000 minutes across all competitions last season. And in all but three games, he played as an attacking midfielder. Kinda played a little over 1,300 minutes as he worked his way back from surgery.

Vermes called Kinda to a more elusive player, Thommy a more “direct” player.

“I think he’s a lot more hungry to score goals than Gadi was,” Vermes said. “(Thommy) wants to get in the box. Gadi liked to score goals, but he puts, I think, more stock into service, the final pass.”

The manager also mentioned the number of runs Thommy makes into the box. He takes up space vacated by teammate Pulido, who likes to venture from the front line to the midfield in order to open up space.

“Thommy will be more of a penetrating guy, and give us more numbers in the box, which at times we need,” Vermes said. “I think it’s gonna be around his dribbling, it’s gonna be around his ability to shoot with both feet, it’s gonna be his hunger to get into the box, to make those penetrating runs.

“I think that’ll be a good asset of his.”

Is age really just a number?

Much is made these days of Sporting KC’s age. The average age of Vermes’ players entering the 2024 season is about 26 years.

Johnny Russell, Alan Pulido, Andreu Fontas and goalkeeper Tim Melia are all in their mid to late 30s.

Some call this a potential weakness. But Vermes doesn’t see it that way, noting that the three of the five “oldest” teams in MLS made the 2023 playoffs ... as did three of the five teams with the “youngest” rosters.

In a league where 60% of the teams make the playoffs, four of the next five youngest teams qualified for the postseason, whereas just two of the next five oldest teams did.

Managing a relatively older roster means managing minutes carefully. Having the depth to do so becomes very important.

“We had guys last year that played, but they didn’t have an impact on the game,” Vermes said. “I believe these guys (new signings), they will have an impact on the game and that will help our team immensely. It’ll help stoke the fire behind the guys that are playing regularly.

“But when they’re given a break, those guys will do something to help the team. ... I believe we’re gonna really have more of that than we have in the past.”

Could we see a Jake Davis- or Logan Ndenbe-type breakout?

Jake Davis and Logan Ndenbe were two very positive revelations during the 2023 season.

This year, two of Sporting’s youngest attackers — forwards Alenis Vargas and Stephen Afrifa — could play important roles.

Afrifa, Sporting KC’s first-round pick (No. 8 overall) in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft, stayed in college to finish his senior year before coming to Kansas City midway through the season. At the time, Sporting hadn’t yet won a match.

Vermes likened it to jumping into a a raging river.

“You’re trying to jump in the middle of it and cross it,” Vermes said. “It’s very hard to fight the current and everything.”

Afrifa seldom played in 2023 but found a groove, and some confidence, in an extended stint with Sporting’s second-tier club, Sporting KC II. Vermes said Afrifa continued to develop during this year’s preseason camp, scoring a few goals in exhibition matches.

“He has a comfortability doing a full preseason with us,” Vermes said.

Vargas, a 20-year-old forward from Honduras, has blazing speed and a big, physical presence. After coming in a little out of shape (and not knowing what to expect from his first full professional preseason), Vargas quickly got caught up and started to make an impact, Vermes said.

“He started to find his way and what he could take advantage of in games,” Vermes said.

To round out this year’s KC shortlist of players to watch, throw in a healthy Willy Agada and Robert Voloder. Either or both could emerge in roles of import this season.

Oh — and one more important fact to know: After Saturday’s season opener at Houston, Sporting KC will play host to the Philadelphia Union on March 2 at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan.