Injuries, call-ups leave Sporting KC scrambling at CB, could lead to Erik Palmer-Brown's MLS debut

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sporting Kansas City came into the season with the league's strongest corps of center backs.

Two and a half months in, the depth chart for the position now reads, “Um ...”

Matt Besler is with the US national team, tuning up for the World Cup. Fellow MLS All-Star Aurelien Collin is sidelined by a recurring hamstring strain. Ike Opara is out of the picture after season-ending ankle surgery. And on Thursday, Lawrence Olum took off for Africa to join Kenya's national team for a two-legged Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Comoros on Sunday and May 30.

Manager Peter Vermes wasn't happy with the last-minute call-up of Olum, saying the Football Kenya Federation was “extremely unprofessional” not to provide more notice.

“That's the part I have the frustration with,” Vermes told reporters on Friday. “We could have easily prepared there differently, if we would have known that he was going away. We didn't know.”

Even so, Sporting will have to have someone in central defense when they visit the Chicago Fire on Sunday (3 pm ET, UniMas).

“It's something that we'll just have to deal with,” Vermes said. “It is what it is, and there's nothing we can do about it other than taking this game first, and then we'll deal with next week's as it comes. It's a little bit of a challenge for the group, but we've got more than enough guys that have capabilities of playing the game. We'll figure out some concoction.”

That concoction won't include Collin, who took himself out of Wednesday's 2-1 home loss to Philadelphia with tightness in his right hamstring – the second time he has had to come out early with the same problem – and Vermes said Sporting want to give him a chance to rest and heal.

“I don't think it's that bad,” he said, “but at the same time what you don't want to do is, you don't want to hurry somebody back. It doesn't make sense right now to try to do that. I think he was fine to come back. The question is, why has he done it twice now?”

The one-two punch of injury and international absence has left 17-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown as the club's only natural center back, but Vermes isn't saying whether the youngster will make his league debut when Sporting travel to Chicago on Sunday.

Then again, he didn't rule out the young Homegrown player, either.

“Is it the best situation for him to step into? I don't know,” Vermes said. “But what I do think is that I've seen him play at every level. I was there at his trial when he first started with our academy, and I think he was 9 years old and playing on the U-12 team, or 11. I can't remember the age group that it was, but he was a couple of years younger, and I was blown away that he was that many years younger and he made the team.”

Vermes noted that Palmer-Brown always aims to play up a level.

“It's like when he went to the [US] 17s, they were surprised,” Vermes said. “At the time, he was 14, and all of a sudden he's playing there. Then he went to the 18 camp, and the next thing you know, he's playing there. Then I talk to the U-20 coach, and he said, 'You really think?' and I said, 'Look, he'll be the best central defender you have. Then he goes and plays, they were like, 'You're not kidding. He was the guy who carried the game.'”

Palmer-Brown, who has already been the object of a seven-figure offer from Italian power Juventus before playing a single professional minute, told reporters he'll be ready to go if needed.

“I just feel like Peter and the guys have just trained me well to be ready for that point in time, for me to get my debut and get it out of the way,” he said. “So of course I want to go out there and show the fans what I can do, but then again I just don't want to mess up and have a poor performance. There's a win-lose situation, but that's the game of soccer. You're going to have your good days and you're going to have your bad days.”

Vermes could also call on several other players to fill in on central defense, although one of them is not at 100 percent going into the weekend.

Defensive midfielder Uri Rosell can play in the backline but is nursing a knock he picked up in Wednesday's match, and right back Chance Myers played some center back during his Generation Adidas days.

“Anybody's capable,” Myers said. “There are a ton of guys who are more than willing to step in and look up to the challenge.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.