The weather is cold, but the stove is now officially hot. Oh, off-season, how I have missed you.
With a half-day transfer window, expansion draft, and more already on tap for December before the January extravaganzas of the main transfer window, free agency, and the SuperDraft all arrive, it is worthwhile to take a look at just how exactly Sporting Kansas City’s books stack up for the serious off-season renovations that need to take place.
While MLS’s rules are often as clear as mud, its salary cap and roster salary minimums and maximums are pretty straightforward, at least before you get general allocation money, targeted allocation money, as-yet-uninvented allocation money, and all other manner of GarberBucks thrown into the mix. Here is what they are expected to be for the 2017 campaign:
2017 salary cap: $3.845M
2017 maximum senior roster salary charge: $480,625
2017 minimum senior roster salary: $65,000
2017 minimum supplemental roster salary: $53,000
We know that contract offers have been extended to both defender Kevin Ellis and goalkeeper Alec Kann, so let’s assume for the moment that both Ellis and Kann re-sign with the club at, say, ~11% raises for each player, and that both goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas and winger Tyler Pasher, recently signed from Swope Park Rangers, signed for the supplemental roster minimum. Based on what we know from the most recent salary figures from the MLS Players Association and the new contracts to Feilhaber and Opara, we’re left with the following in occupied cap space for 2017:
Roger Espinoza*: $480,625
Dom Dwyer**: $480,625
Benny Feilhaber**: $480,625
Graham Zusi*: $480,625
Matt Besler***: $457,500
Soni Mustivar : $200,000
Diego Rubio****: $200,000
Tim Melia: $150,000
Ike Opara: $125,000
Lawrence Olum: $105,000
Seth Sinovic: $105,000
Kevin Ellis: $80,000
Alec Kann: $70,000
Saad Abdul-Salaam: $65,000
Jimmy Medranda: $65,000
Erik Palmer-Brown: $65,000
Cameron Porter: $65,000
Benji Joya: $53,000
Daniel Salloi: $53,000
Tyler Pasher: $53,000
Adrian Zendejas: $53,000
*As Designated Players, Espinoza and Zusi will both carry the maximum cap hit for 2017 to the tune of $480,625.
**While Feilhaber and Dwyer are not a Designated Players, their reported wages are at DP levels, with the excess wages paid down to the DP threshold with targeted/general allocation money. Ergo, for the purposes of this exercise, both players carry the maximum cap hit for 2017 at $480,625.
***Besler is no longer considered a Designated Player, meaning that at some point his wages were paid down to at least the 2016 DP threshold of $457,500, which is what is being tentatively included here as his hit to the 2017 salary cap.
****While Diego Rubio’s publicized base wage is $180,000, as a Young Designated Player, he counts as a $200,000 hit to the salary cap per the MLS roster rules and regulations.
Already, you can see that almost all of the club’s cap space is already taken up, which suggests that even more targeted/general allocation money is being used to further buy down the salaries of Besler, Espinoza, Dwyer, Feilhaber, and Zusi. MLS rules allow clubs to buy down Designated Player wages all the way down to a $150,000 cap hit, but no further. If you assume that, as DPs, Espinoza’s and Zusi's salaries are paid down in such a manner, all of the sudden Sporting’s salary cap total drops from $3.716,000 to $2,754,750.
That’s a lot of cap space for Peter Vermes to utilize, for good or for bad.
Last offseason on paper looked good—Nuno Andre Coelho and Justin Mapp should have addressed the glaring needs at center back and winger, but after a couple of solid months to start the season, Coelho’s form and fitness both dropped precipitously amid injuries, and Mapp, well…he logged a grand total of 43 league minutes across six substitute appearances, which equates to a salary of over $5,200 per minute of game time.
Put a different way: when your backup goalkeeper wins the Newcomer of the Year award at the Pitch Black ceremony, you know that your off-season plans have blown up in your face like a cord of dynamite from ACME.
Brad Davis, Coelho, and Mapp all represented final veteran pieces that a team which thinks it is a contender tries to get to round off the depth on its bench or to add a bit more quality to its starting XI. In retrospect, Davis and Mapp in particular did not pan out as hoped, but Mapp came on a free with just a one-year deal, so it’s hard to fault Sporting too much for taking a flier on him (Davis, on the other hand, cost Sporting actual assets, including a second-round pick in the upcoming SuperDraft, and a higher base wage, to net, so that one’s a bit harder to justify, I think, even though Davis contributed more on the pitch than Mapp did).
Coelho…we’re left with a lot of “what if” sort of questions. It is easy to forget, but he was easily the surest member of Sporting’s backline for March and April before injuries led to losses in form and eventually falling out of the regular starting XI. Since it appears that he too was brought in on a one-year deal, it is hard to fault Sporting too much for giving him a shot, especially with Erik Palmer-Brown spending the entire year on loan with Porto B in Portugal.
More to the point for this piece, Davis, Coelho, and Mapp didn’t just represent final veteran pieces—they represented expensive veteran pieces. Losing the three of them for 2017 frees up over $850,000 in base wages alone. Factor in that the free agent class of Chance Myers, Paulo Nagamura, and Jacob Peterson all could also be coming off the books, and that figure balloons to roughly $1.4 million.
Like I said: that’s a lot of cap space for Vermes to play with this off-season. And he must do a better job of utilizing it than the last off-season, especially after the vote of confidence ownership showed in him by giving him another contract extension.
Ergo, the order of the day this off-season seems to be not just youth, but talented youth. Sporting is becoming a relatively old team—of PV’s preferred starting XI, only left back Jimmy Medranda is under the age of 25—and the club’s lack of recent success in the MLS SuperDraft* has left a dearth of senior roster-ready options in the pipeline.
*Forgive me for the digression but it must be said: after playing the SuperDraft like a harp between 2008-2012 and picking up core players like Chance Myers, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Dom Dwyer, the *only* core player who has come from the 2013-2016 SuperDrafts is Saad Abdul-Salaam. This is the result of, I think, two reasons: one is a willingness of the club to trade draft picks for short-term solutions (the club lacks a second-round pick in the upcoming SuperDraft because it was sent to Houston as a part of the Brad Davis trade). The other is simply poor draft strategy and execution. Last year, the club inexplicably honed in on only a single player for the first round—goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell. When San Jose selected Tarbell shortly before Sporting went on the clock, the club was basically caught with its pants down and ended up jettisoning the pick to D.C. United for a minimal amount of targeted allocation money.
Sporting’s biggest needs are readily apparent—the revolving door at the winger position opposite Zusi continues spinning (and frankly, Zusi’s own job should be up for the taking, but that’s beating the deadest of horses—his DP contract is at this point a sunk cost), the central midfield remains mostly on the wrong side of 30, and Matt Besler needs an established partner in central defense. Of these three, only the last one ought to be reasonably expected to be filled with in-house options, as a healthy corps of Ike Opara, Kevin Ellis, and Erik Palmer-Brown, plus Lawrence Olum for emergency depth, should produce a qualified candidate at a minimum hit to the salary cap.
Out on the wing, one in-house option has already emerged: Swope Park Rangers regular Tyler Pasher was rewarded for his good season with a senior roster contract. He is able to play at left back as well, but with that position already well stocked by Jimmy Medranda and Seth Sinovic, my guess is that Pasher is tabbed to provide the same sort of inexpensive depth that Connor Hallisey did at left wing, but he cannot be reasonably considered as an option for a regular starter to begin the year.
As for central midfield, well, we’re left with some question marks. It could have also potentially been filled in-house by way of SPR, but it is difficult to say at this point how the season-ending injuries suffered by Ualefi and Kevin Oliveira might have affected their development. Benji Joya was signed mid-season as a long-term reclamation project but he also has not had much of a chance to show what he is capable of yet. While Sporting seem to be well aware of the need for a new attacker, I would argue that the need for new central midfield depth may well be just as important.
Certainly, the club have the means to add a couple of quality players with the wages that are coming off the books in the form of Davis, Mapp, Coelho, et al. With MLS’s wage structure, their combined wages should be enough to cover the salaries of at least a couple of younger, but still senior roster-ready, players while also keeping money from being an object for the upcoming SuperDraft regardless of whether the club draft for need or for the best player on the board.
What do you see as the most glaring needs for Sporting this off-season, and how do you think the club is set financially to address those needs?