With the focus right now on the question of whether Sporting Kansas City will extend the loan of young Designated Player Diego Rubio from Real Valladolid in Spain (the Star's Sam McDowell is reporting that the clubs are presently haggling over a possible extension), it is also worthwhile to take stock on the circumstances surrounding another Sporting KC youngster on loan--but in this case, a loan away from the club: homegrown center back Erik Palmer-Brown.
Palmer-Brown has spent 2016 on loan to FC Porto, the Portuguese powerhouse club, and specifically with their B side that plays in the second division of Portuguese soccer, the LigaPro. Porto B won the LigaPro (although, owing to rules concerning B clubs playing against their mother clubs, they will remain in LigaPro despite theoretically earning promotion to the Liga Portuguesa), and EPB played a significant role in their title run, making 10 starts in the three months between February 1 (when his loan began) and May 9 (when they won the title).
While there is still no telling for sure if Porto will exercise their option to buy when Palmer-Brown's loan expires at the end of the 2016 calendar year, the long run of starts--and the positive results from those starts--suggests that they are certainly pleased with his play, and if I were a betting man and offered even odds, my money would be on Porto making the loan a permanent transfer, absent some sort of serious injury or setback to EPB's development.
This matters, because here at home, Palmer-Brown remains the only real long-term, in-house heir to Sporting captain Matt Besler at center back. Ike Opara is superb when healthy, the trouble is, of course, that he is rarely healthy. Nuno Andre Coelho has turned in a number of solid performances before suffering an injured hamstring, but he is already 30 and at the peak of his abilities. And Kevin Ellis and Lawrence Olum are known quantities whose limitations have been on full display during lengthy stretches of starts for the club by each player in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
So assume for a moment that Porto does elect to trigger Palmer-Brown's buyout clause. The only center back under the age of 27 on Sporting's roster will be Ellis, who turns 25 in a few days, and the cupboard at Swope Park Rangers is similarly bare: Tommy Meyer has been the constant at center back for SPR, but he is 26 and is unlikely to progress into much more than what he already is, and Jacob VanCompernolle's stock has fallen so far that he went from being Meyer's partner in defense on opening day to today being loaned out to Oklahoma Energy FC for the remainder of the 2016 campaign.
This is not a minor detail for Sporting fans looking towards the future. During this year's MLS SuperDraft*, Peter Vermes and co. elected to punt the club's first-round draft pick over to D.C. United for targeted allocation money with two well-regarded center backs--Kyle Fisher and Jonathan Campbell--still on the board. Both would come off the board within the next three picks, and Campbell is already a regular MLS starter (yes, it is for the Chicago Fire, who remain the Eastern Conference's resident sad sack, but it isn't because of their defense; it's because their utterly anemic attack has generated fewer goals than any club other than the decimated Seattle Sounders).
*The decline of talent from the MLS SuperDraft is another real area of concern for Sporting. Consider that between 2008-2012, Sporting drafted Chance Myers, Roger Espinoza, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Dom Dwyer, in addition to players who made significant contributions like Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong. Since 2013, though, Sporting shifted to being much more willing to use their draft picks as trade bait. And while a 2013 second-round pick fetched Opara, and a 2014 first-round pick was part of the package that netted Benny Feilhaber, it has meant that the talent pipeline from the SuperDraft that formed the current team's core has largely dried up. But that's another article, not this one.
So if Palmer-Brown does move to Portugal permanently, where will Sporting's next center back prospect come from? The 2017 SuperDraft is shaping up to be relatively thin in defense and especially at center back--the most highly-regarded defender in the potential 2017 crop, Louisville's Tim Kubel, is a right back, and there's a dropoff after that--and at SPR, neither Oumar Ballo or Amer Didic have fully made VanCompernolle's old spot their own, though both did go the full 90 minutes in SPR's 2-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders 2 on Sunday, with Didic winning Team of the Week honors for his effort.
There is the academy, of course, and I don't know enough about their players yet to make an informed opinion on who might emerge, but certainly Palmer-Brown has been one of the best players thus far to do so, and at least at present, the club seems ill-equipped to fill his absence not on the present depth chart necessarily, but on future depth charts certainly.
Peter Vermes and co. have made a calculated risk to stock up this team to win as many trophies as possible in the current window they have with the core group of Besler, Espinoza, et al., and that has led to less quality young depth behind that core. And while Sporting may well remain capable of a strong playoff showing in 2016 as well (this is MLS after all, and peaking at the right timesis absolutely paramount to overcoming the league's innate parity), any transfer of Erik Palmer-Brown will--and should--necessitate a very serious conversation about the future depth of our beloved Sporks.