Alan Pulido - Sporting Kansas City - Running
USA Today Sports

Sporting KC, Colorado, Atlanta & Minnesota: Which perfect team is built to last? | Andrew Wiebe

Perfection is fleeting. Best to enjoy it while you can.

Heading into Week 3, just four of 26 teams in MLS remain unblemished, two wins from two games. Two of those teams missed the playoffs last season. One is missing its talisman, the league’s most voracious goalscorer. One is an upstart hoping to sustain their recent momentum after a rough expansion period. All four are doing it different ways.

History tells us Sporting KC, the Colorado Rapids, Atlanta United and Minnesota United can’t and won’t win forever, or even this weekend. There are no Invincibles here. The longest season-opening winning streak in the last decade was Sporting’s seven-game run to start the 2012 season. It’s an outlier. Only four others made it to four. A handful more got to three. Most fell off the unbeaten boat in Week 3.

Before the field gets winnowed even further – at least one team is guaranteed to falter this weekend – time for a quick look at all four, in order of the Supporters’ Shield standings.

Sporting Kansas City

This weekend: Saturday at Atlanta United; 7 pm ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ & MLS LIVE on DAZN

What’s working?

Everything about the front five, but Alan Pulido (2g/1a) and Gadi Kinda (2g/1a), in particular.

It’s very early, it looks like money well spent this offseason for Peter Vermes, Khiry Shelton’s return included. Pulido’s got the goals you’d expect from a high-volume No. 9: right place at the right time, smart finish in the corner. He’s dropping into space to combine with Kinda, Shelton and Johnny Russell, too, opening space for all three to pop into dangerous areas in the final third. Perhaps most importantly, he’s smiling. He’s fitting in. He’s comfortable.

Same for the busy, technical, tenacious Kinda, who may not even be a starter when Felipe Gutierrez, arguably the Kansas City’s best player, returns. Meanwhile, Gerso’s coming off the bench and changing games. Erik Hurtado is a menace as a late sub. Gianluca Busio is itching to make a big jump. Daniel Salloi was a double-digit goalscorer in 2019, but has to wonder where and when his minutes will come. We haven’t yet seen Russell’s best, either.

Point being, Vermes is going to have his hands full managing minutes in 2020. Sporting are three deep with real quality – and a commitment to defending – at all four attacking positions. They’re going to put a hurting some teams this season.

Player to watch…

I’ve got two names for you. Roger Espinoza and Luis Martins.

It’s easy to get distracted by all the toys Sporting KC have in attack, but Espinoza’s return to form makes it all tick. The Honduran’s engine has fueled Sporting KC for years, giving the team elite ball recovery and balance between the lines. He sets the tone, one that needed to be reset after last year. It’s no coincidence that Espinoza’s first injury-plagued season in Kansas City was the team’s worst in a decade.

Martins quietly impressed at left back the second half of last season as Kansas City stumbled to what ended up being the league’s second worst defensive record. Like Graham Zusi on the right side, he’s a hub for possession. Like Zusi, he does some of his best work in transition and the final third and was a post away from a golazo of his own against Houston. Seth Sinovic is a legend at Children’s Mercy Park, but so far Martins is making it easy to move on.

What’s the catch?

The backline – let’s make it back six, actually – was a bit lucky in Vancouver (one goal allowed to 2.74 xGA) then wasn’t really tested at home against Houston (one shot on goal, no Alberth Elis). Neither the ‘Caps or the Dynamo are favorites to make the playoffs out of the Western Conference. The big question for Kansas City is how they’ll deal with teams that can turn them over in bad spots and exploit the gaps left by the advancing fullbacks. Vancouver created some of those opportunities, they just didn’t punish Sporting for them.

Saturday’s game in Atlanta ought to tell us more about Roberto Puncec and the whole group. Individual mistakes killed Vermes’ team in 2019. They still could in 2020, but so far so good.

Minnesota United

This weekend: Sunday vs. Red Bulls; 7 pm ET, FS1 in the US, TSN and MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada

What’s working?

The collective. Even if Luis Amarilla scored 25 goals – doubtful, but fun to imagine! – there won’t be a standalone star who eclipses the rest of the team. Minnesota needs something from everyone to exceed their 2019 rise from expansion deadwood to surprise contender.

They need Ike Opara to be the best defender in the league (and maybe get a couple timely goals, too). Check. They need Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus to provide a launching pad for attacks and a security blanket when the ball comes the other way. Check. They need Ethan Finlay to be a menace in the open field. Check. They need one of Kevin Molino or Thomas Chacon to deliver. Check, the former so far. They need Amarilla to score. Check again.

After two years of misery away from the Twin Cities, Adrian Heath’s got four road wins in four games to start both 2019 and 2020. Good stuff. What the Loons really need now is for everyone to stay healthy. This could be a special season if they do.

Player to watch…

Jan Gregus. Somehow the Slovakian got a little overlooked last year despite making 30 starts and scoring a goal to go with 12 assists. Opara got the majority of the love, with Alonso picking up plenty of headlines thanks to his history in the league as well.

This is Gregus’ year to pick up some plaudits. My favorite part of his game, other than that heavy right foot and the set-piece delivery, is his desire and ability to pass through the lines. When he wins the ball, he looks to split defenders or put players into space. It’s partly why the Loons have been so devastating so far on the counter.

What’s the catch?

Same as Kansas City, the competition. Can’t blame Minnesota for that, though. The real test will come when teams make them create against a defensive block or a key player goes down injured. Speaking of, Chacon may have to fill the void left by Molino, who left the Quakes win with an injury, this weekend in the home opener.

Atlanta United

This weekend: Saturday vs. Sporting KC; 7 pm ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ & MLS LIVE on DAZN

What’s working?

The schedule and the margins. Two wins is two wins, but context matters. Neither Nashville SC nor FC Cincinnati know exactly what they’re going to be in 2020. Given their roster, budget and expectations, Atlanta should have won both games, and they did. Doesn’t really matter how they did it, to be honest. Just doing it while juggling Concacaf Champions League and mourning Josef Martinez’s injury is an accomplishment.

Neither performance was perfect, but both were encouraging. They’re doing this without Miles Robinson, who ought to help clean things up when he returns. Ezequiel Barco still alternates between absolutely devastating and sorta lost in the final third, but two goals and assist in two games is basically halfway to both his 2018 and 2019 totals. Pity Martinez is playing like the River Plate version of himself that prompted Arthur Blank to pony up millions for his signature.

Player to watch…

Emerson Hyndman, who is doing a better-than-decent Darlington Nagbe approximation while adding goals to the equation. The 23-year-old fell off the USMNT radar while bouncing around the British Isles looking for the right home. He found one in Atlanta, and now he’s a week-in, week-out starter for the first time in his career. Hyndman looks better every game he plays for Atlanta United. Why couldn’t he get back on the fast track?

What’s the catch?

It’s Nashville and Cincinnati, and we still don’t know Josef’s recovery timeline.

Some of my Extratime colleagues pronounced Atlanta’s MLS Cup dreams over after Josef went down. I think that was premature. This team will be different, no doubt, but Frank de Boer still has more pieces than most. This week’s games in Mexico City and home against Kansas City will tell us more.

Colorado Rapids

This weekend: Saturday at Vancouver; 7 pm ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US, TSN in Canada

What’s working?

Set pieces and late-game scrappiness.

Jack Price is a magician with his right foot, and the Rapids have killers in the six-yard box. Everyone knows Colorado can hurt you via dead balls, but somehow they just keep doing it, in large part thanks to the delivery of the Englishman. Price is more than just a sweet right foot, too. He’s among the league’s most prolific passers. Everything is flowing through him right now.

As for the scrappiness, it’s nice to see Colorado be on the right side of some breaks to start 2020 after getting none a year ago. Against D.C. United, they found another gear on the road, suffocated the hosts over the last 10 minutes and got a lucky bounce or two. Against Orlando, they were sloppy in open play, but Drew Moor gave the supporters something to remember in the home opener.

I’ll just say it: I’m happy for the Rapids and their fans.

Player to watch…

Sam Nicholson. The Rapids’ right wing is a position battle to watch for US national team supporters. It makes sense that Robin Fraser would go with Nicholson to start, given Jonathan Lewis will be leaving for Olympic qualifying. The question is what happens long-term. Can Nicholson nail down a starting spot in Lewis’ absence or can the 22-year-old finally muscle his way into the lineup during a busy 2020?

What’s the catch?

Is it sustainable? My gut, from 2019’s magical second half to a 2020 weighed down by more expectations, said no, but I very easily could be wrong. Younes Namli is a special talent, and there’s a decent chance nobody will ever slow them down on corners and free kicks. Why can’t Colorado be a playoff team?!