Sporting KC II returns professional soccer to Lawrence’s backyard

Sporting KC II assistant coach Ike Opara instructs a player during practice. Sporting KC II began playing soccer in Lawrence in 2022.

Professional soccer returned to town this spring, as Sporting KC II is knee-deep in its regular-season schedule. The club, serving as the feeder team representing SKC’s professional club within Major League Soccer’s NEXT Pro league, has carved out a home for itself at Rock Chalk Park in West Lawrence.

SKC II, which went 4-3-2 through its first nine matches, still has plenty of soccer left to go in head coach Benny Feilhaber’s second season at the helm. This past week saw SKC II earn its second draw of the season 2-2 at St. Louis City 2 before returning home to host Real Monarchs Friday night.

The area got a taste of SKC II last summer, with the team splitting games between Lawrence and Hummer Sports Park in Topeka. Now, excluding a pair of games in September, SKC II is slated to play the bulk of its regular season in Lawrence.

Feilhaber, currently in his second year with SKC II, accepted the head coaching job in January 2022 after retiring from professional soccer in 2020. Born in Brazil and raised in the U.S., Feilhaber spent two seasons at UCLA before embarking on an extensive pro career in the MLS and overseas.

Feilhaber was a key starter during Sporting’s 2013 MLS Cup title run under the command of longtime Sporting coach Peter Vermes.

“I put my name in the hat to be a coach here,” Feilhaber said. “I owe that to Pete big time, with not only everything that he taught me as a player and the opportunities he gave me afterward, but just the idea behind it all and what this team is here for and the vision Pete has.

“That’s the reason why I have this job and I’m thankful for it,” he added.

Feilhaber and returning second-year assistant Ike Opara, heading into a loaded June schedule, will be two familiar faces on the sidelines this summer.

Opara, a former SKC defender and 2019’s MLS Defender of the Year, joined Feilhaber’s staff last season after retiring from professional soccer in 2021. Opara served as a team scout with Nashville SC for a single season before returning to Kansas City.

“He’s an extremely intelligent and defensive-minded coach,” Feilhaber said of Opara. “I’m the kind of guy that sees the game from the offensive part of the field, so we complement each other very well.”

New faces are good, too.

First-year NEXT Pro forward Pau Vidal, a key offseason acquisition from Valencia, Spain, has paid dividends for the club right away. Vidal, tallying six goals through seven starts, sits just one goal behind the league’s leading scorer — Colorado’s Yosuke Hanya.

Complementing Vidal are team captains Josh Coan and Jahon Rad. Coan’s notched one goal and two assists through five starts and Rad has been the club’s most accurate passer, connecting on 95.7% of his attempts in seven appearances.

Feilhaber feels the mix of an outsider among returning leadership made the preseason and first couple of matches a far smoother process.

“They have a better understanding of what we are and what we do with the players around them,” Feilhaber said.

photo by: Sporting KC

Sporting KC II head coach Benny Feilhaber shares a moment with midfielder Jake Davis after a match. Feilhaber took the head coaching position with SKC II in January 2022.

He added that dispersing playing time more liberally will deepen the roster down the stretch. Making a better habit of spreading minutes across the roster has been a fundamental change for the club this season, Feilhaber said.

“We have 21 rostered players,” he said. “Can we get a lot of those guys minutes and opportunities? When push comes to shove later on in the year when there are injuries, midweek games and high-intensity games — who are the guys that we can count on?”

Defensively, SKC II has looked to defender Lucas Rosa, a native of São Paulo, Brazil, with a stretch of eight consecutive starts this season. The Pittsburgh grad has even notched a goal and an assist during his short Sporting career.

Goalkeeping duties have been primarily split between Ethan Bandré and Kendall McIntosh. Entering Friday’s match, Bandré and McIntosh were knotted up at 13 saves apiece, with Bandré leading the team’s save percentage at 72.2% through five starts.

“I think our team is good enough to win this league,” Feilhaber said. “I think we’re good enough to promote a few players to (Sporting KC) in the offseason. There are different ways to do that. And right now, we’re trying to get a lot of players opportunities and experience.”

Last year served as the inaugural season for Major League Soccer’s NEXT Pro league, circulating 27 teams across the country. SKC II finished eighth (9-12-3) in the western division.

This season, Lawrence soccer fans won’t have to look far to watch Sporting KC’s up-and-coming talent.


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