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Sporting Kansas City-Los Angeles FC Preview
Sporting Kansas City has already shown it's put behind a painful ending to the 2018 season. Los Angeles FC is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to do the same.
The Black and Gold kick off an anticipated second season Sunday night against a Kansas City side that may be entering Banc of California Stadium a bit weary, but so far has shown little decline from the club that ended last year's regular season atop the Western Conference.
LAFC's MLS debut was in most ways an unprecedented success, as it set a league record for an expansion team with 57 points while finishing third in the highly competitive West. That historic season came to a swift and unsatisfying conclusion, however, with a 3-2 home loss to Real Salt Lake in the knockout round in which the deciding score came on an inadvertent own goal by Black and Gold defender Walker Zimmerman.
"Everyone is anxious to get Sunday here. I think we still have a sour taste in our mouth from the loss against Salt Lake in the playoffs," defender Steven Beitashour said. "Last year was a good year, but we didn't necessarily finish the way we wanted to."
Sporting Kansas City can relate after coming up just short of playing for the MLS Cup, a dream that was dashed when Portland's Diego Valeri scored deep into stoppage time to break a 2-all tie in the second leg of the West final.
Motivated by the heartbreaking result, Sporting turned in what longtime coach Peter Vermes called "the best preseason we've ever had", then backed it up with by overwhelming Mexican side Toluca in the opening round of the CONCACAF Champions League. The 5-0 aggregate score was the largest ever by an MLS team over a Liga MX club in the event's history.
With Vermes placing greater emphasis on the Champions League than the early part of the MLS season, Kansas City likely will have several regulars either unavailable or playing reduced roles in the opener. Sporting fielded its entire starting 11 for Thursday's second leg despite entering the match with a cozy advantage by virtue of its 3-0 home victory on Feb. 21.
It's a concern against an LAFC squad that totaled 68 goals last season, second only to eventual champion Atlanta, and returns nearly all of its firepower in All-Star Carlos Vela (14 goals, 13 assists), Diego Rossi (12 goals) and Adama Diomande (12 goals). The Black and Gold will also have a full season of Christian Ramirez, who scored 14 goals with Minnesota United in 2017 and was acquired in August.
"It's not going to be easy," Vermes said. "They're a very good team, we're playing at their place and it's their home opener. So it's not like we're dropping the level of game or anything - we're taking it up a notch."
Vermes can rely on a defense that's traditionally been one of the league's stingiest and yielded just one goal in Sporting's 2018 season sweep of LAFC. Though 2017 Defender of the Year Ike Opara was traded to Minnesota in January, the club views onetime Barcelona member Andreu Fontas as a ready-made replacement alongside four-time All-Star Matt Besler and stalwart goalkeeper Tim Melia.
The attack will once again be paced by Krisztian Nemeth and Gerso, both of whom scored in each leg of the Champions League opener.
Updated March 1, 2019