Saturday’s trip to Kansas City will be a tough one. No doubt about it. It’s also a great opportunity to spark some life back into the 2018 campaign and maybe even slightly avenge Energy FC’s 2017 Western Conference Final defeat. Currently tied atop the Western Conference with Orange County and Sacramento Republic on 10 points, the Swope Park Rangers won three of their opening four matches before being held to a 1-1 draw against San Antonio in week four.
Key to getting a result in Kansas City will be shutting down striker Kharlton Belmar who leads the league with five goals this season. Listed at 5’11’’ and 159 lbs., Belmar isn’t the biggest physical presence, but his pace is electric, he has great instincts in the box, and he is a composed finisher. You won’t find many more complete forwards in the league. In what was another fantastic season for SPR in 2017, Belmar led the team with 15 goals – good for fourth best in all of the USL.
It hasn’t just been Belmar who’s helped Swope get off to a hot start. Hadji Barry is tied for the league lead in assists with three, and Rodrigo Saravia has chipped in with two goals. Swope is also fantastic at retaining the ball. In all five of their matches this season, they have had the vast majority of the possession. Energy FC have had the edge in possession in four of their five matches, so it’ll be interesting to see which side is able to impose their will on Saturday night.
The biggest difference between the two sides over the first five matches has been the creation and conversion of high quality chances. OKC has had 38 shots, 13 on target, and only 3 have found the back of the net. Conversely, Swope have had 45 shots, 24 on target, and 11 have resulted in goals.
There could also be a familiar face on the pitch if goalkeeper Eric Dick gets the nod for Swope for a third time this season. Dick started every match for the Energy FC U23s in 2017 and was the #13 overall pick by Sporting Kansas City in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft.
Swope Park started against San Antonio in a 4-3-3 formation: Dick; Storm, Didic, Smith, Maher; Hernandez, Silva, Busio (Saravia 68’); Belmar, Barry (Benitez 90+3’), Minter (Blackwood 78’). Should SPR keep the trend going, this will be the first time Energy FC faces a 4-3-3. Opponents have opted for a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 in the first five matches, the latter is how the Greens have lined up each time this season.
OKC won one and lost three in the four meetings with Swope in 2017. The losses, a 3-1 in March, a 2-0 in September, and the penalty shootout defeat in the Western Conference Final, were all in Kansas City. Belmar scored in that 3-1 opening day loss last season. The win, a 4-1 thrashing, came in October in OKC’s penultimate regular season match. Miguel Gonzalez, Jose Angulo (2), and Juan Pablo Guzman were the scorers on that day. Gonzalez and Guzman are likely to feature this weekend, but Angulo’s status is still up in the air. The leading goal scorer for the Greens in 2017 did train all week, however.
For the returning players from 2017, getting redemption from the heartbreaking playoff loss and the chance to lift silverware for the first time in OKC’s history will surely be in the back of their minds. Though very much a team still trying to find its identity, it’s hard to believe that this experienced coaching staff will not find a way to get this talented roster to start clicking.
The match this Saturday kicks off at 7:30pm and will be played at the new home of Swope Park Rangers, Shawnee Mission South District Stadium. It will be aired on the new ESPN+ platform.