From the time he took over as Sporting Kansas City’s technical director after the 2006 season through 2012, Peter Vermes was arguably the best drafter of talent in Major League Soccer’s general manager ranks. During those years, the current core of the team pretty much all came from the SuperDraft: Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, Dom Dwyer, Benny Feilhaber*, and the now-free agent Chance Myers. Additionally, solid MLS pros Michael Harrington, Teal Bunbury, and C.J. Sapong were all Vermes SuperDraft picks.
*While Feilhaber obviously wasn’t selected by Sporting in a SuperDraft, the club did give up SuperDraft picks to get him from the New England Revolution—and considering the Revolution used the draft picks in the Feilhaber trade on Patrick Mullins (whom they lost a year later in the expansion draft to NYCFC) and Sean Okoli (who made five total appearances for NER and was released), it’s fair to say that Sporting won that trade by a country mile.
Since the 2013 edition of the MLS SuperDraft to the present, though, the talent has dried up and the club has only one draft pick from this era—starting right Saad Abdul-Salaam—still remaining on the senior roster. In the meanwhile, the club roster continued to age, with most of its current core—the aforementioned Besler, Zusi, Espinoza, and Feilhaber--all 30 or older.
So...what happened between 2013 and now?
Three key factors can be identified that might help account for the aging of Sporting’s roster: the lack of development by draft picks, a willingness to trade draft picks for marginal returns, and the inability or unwillingness of the club to identify alternate talent to pick. We’ll look at each in turn.
Back in 2013, Mikey Lopez looked like a fantastic draft pick on paper. As a Generation Adidas signing who came up through the US U-20 program, his pedigree was unquestionable, and as a box-to-box central midfielder, he should have helped fill a serious long-term need with the offseason departure of Roger Espinoza to Wigan. Instead, Lopez mostly bounced around from loan to loan and ended up making just 14 appearances for Sporting before he was let go after the 2015 season. He spent last year at NYCFC, where he has already made more appearances in a single campaign than he did in three while in Sporting blue.
In 2015, in a marked departure to 2014 when Sporting didn’t have a single pick until #39 overall*, the club had three first-round selections, which it used on Connor Hallisey, Saad Abdul-Salaam, and Amadou Dia, in that order. After an impressive rookie campaign, Dia found himself in the Vermes doghouse last year and was traded midseason to Montreal for forward Cameron Porter—a third-round selection in the same 2015 SuperDraft. While Dia may not have progressed as the club would have liked, it should also be clear that this was a sell-low trade by the club, as they traded a first-round pick for a third-round pick.
*Vermes can, and should, get a pass for 2014 in this particular regard. The club was already handicapped going into the draft by dint of being the reigning MLS Cup champions and thus drafting last, plus their first-round pick had been a part of the Feilhaber trade which, we’ve already argued, Sporting has won pretty conclusively. Receiving 24 goals and 38 assists in league play alone over four seasons has to be considered a great return on investment regardless of the draft pick.
Sporting at least got some return on its investment in Dia, though, unlike Hallisey, whose contract option for 2017 was unceremoniously not picked up by the club at the end of the 2016 season.
Lopez, Dia, and Hallisey collectively represent a mere 76 appearances for the club; two were basically released and the third was flipped for a player taken two rounds later in the draft—all of which represents a substantial loss of value to the Sporks.
Then there is the fact that Sporting has become rather profligate with its picks as trade chips. Now, to be clear, some of those trades (like the ones for Feilhaber and for Ike Opara) have paid off in spades. But some of the others have represented the surrender of significant value for single seasons of limited impact by aging veterans—Sporting didn’t have a second-round pick in the 2016 SuperDraft because they had traded it for Andy Gruenebaum, who made eleven appearances for the club in a single year before retiring.
Similarly, Sporting will not (barring a trade between now and Friday) have a second-round pick in Friday’s SuperDraft because it was traded to the Houston Dynamo as a part of the Brad Davis trade. Davis managed a pair of goals in 24 appearances in his sole year in Sporting blue before also retiring, and thanks to Justin Mapp, he wasn’t even the most disappointing winger acquired in the offseason.
(Additionally, even with the three first-round picks in 2015, there could have been an even larger haul. The club’s second-round pick—again—was traded, this time for central midfielder Servando Carrasco, who was then traded midseason for Amobi Okugo in what was, at the time, largely viewed as a salary dump by Orlando City. While the initial trade of the draft pick for Carrasco might have been justified, Orlando definitely came out ahead in the Carrasco-for-Okugo swap—Carrasco has made 43 appearances as a crucial member of the Lions’ midfield core, while Okugo made three largely forgettable league appearances for Kansas City and, considering his US youth system background, has to be considered a bust.)
Finally, there is the fact that the club took last year’s draft far less seriously than it should have. When, three picks before Sporting, the San Jose Earthquakes selected goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, whom Sporting had honed in on as its own first choice for their pick, it became apparent that the club simply had not prepared for an eventuality in which Tarbell would not be on the board, and they flipped the pick to DC United for a paltry $125,000 in targeted allocation money. DC used that pick on German central midfielder and Generation Adidas player Julian Buescher, who managed a goal and four assists in just 584 minutes of game time last year.
Let’s frame that trade a bit differently: because Buescher’s $70,000 base salary was comped by the Generation Adidas program, DCU functionally used just $55,000 of cap room to obtain a promising young central midfielder whose salary will continue to remain off the books for at least this year as well.
We aren’t privy to any MLS club’s books (#MLSTransparencyNow), so for all we know, the $125,000 in targeted allocation money is what made the difference in Benny Feilhaber re-upping for two more years, or in being able to pay down Matt Besler’s Designated Player contract. But considering the mass of TAM funds made available to all MLS clubs, and the wealth of general allocation money the club sat on in 2016 as a result of the Krisztian Nemeth transfer, it’s hard to see that $125,000 as more than a few drops in the proverbial bucket. Considering SKC’s lack of depth at central midfield behind its core starting trio of Espinoza, Feilhaber, and Soni Mustivar, it’s a bit hard not to want Buescher over the $125,000.
All three of these factors add up to the reality of an aging roster (of Sporting’s preferred starting XI last year, only left back Jimmy Medranda is under the age of 25), which in turn puts substantial pressure on the club to get its first-round pick on Friday absolutely right. After all, it doesn’t have a second-round pick, and late-round picks in the MLS SuperDraft are functionally lottery tickets. A good draft choice could make the difference between, say, finding Graham Zusi’s heir (not hair—that’s pretty easily recognizable...) for the next decade and being left with a gaping lack of creative playmaking in, say, 2018 should either Feilhaber or Gerso Fernandes go down injured.
That’s a pretty wide margin. And it didn’t have to be so wide, either. Fortunately, if Vermes summons his pre-2013 draft form, that margin should begin to narrow, if it hasn’t already in the forms of Latif Blessing, Christian Volesky, and Cameron Iwasa.