With the sting of a fourth straight first round playoff exit almost two weeks ago now; eyes are starting to turn to the 2018 MLS season for Sporting Kansas City fans. The club has many questions heading into the 2018 season, with a core that is starting to age and attack that sputtered off and on most of the season, and some young attacking talent to hopefully build around. Heading into the offseason, KC has just two players that are out of contract with the club, one is the already departing for Europe, Erik Palmer-Brown, and the other is Cameron Porter. Here at The Blue Testament over the next few days we'll be taking a look at Sporting's current roster, who stays, who could be leaving, and what KC needs to do to improve for 2018. Today we're looking at the goalkeepers and the defenders.
Tim Melia - Would Kansas City have been able to pick up those two points that would have seen them finish ahead of the Houston Dynamo and earn a home game if Melia hadn't gotten hurt? That's going to be a big question for many KC fans this offseason and a fair one when you have arguably the favorite for Goalkeeper of the Year go down with an injury late in the season. Andrew Dykstra stepped in and settled in well enough, but people will wonder if Melia would have been able to save that tying goal against Minnesota or the two goals KC allowed on the road at Houston. Melia's 2017 performance makes picking up his option in 2018 a no brainer for Kansas City and a return to health will hopefully see him pick up where he left off in 2017.
Andrew Dykstra - After a shaky start in goal for KC after Melia went down, Dykstra performed fine in goal for KC. He looked good in the 0-0 home draw against Houston and after the loss in Houston it'd be hard to put any of the three goals he allowed on him. Like Melia, he is in an option year after being acquired in the re-entry draft last year. As long as his option year doesn't come with a large raise in his salary ($80,004 base in 2017) I'm okay with him being brought back as a back up to allow Adrian Zendejas to continue to get games. At the same time I'd be okay if Zendejas became the back up next season, or KC brought in another veteran to back up Melia.
Adrian Zendejas - The player being groomed to replace Melia in the future at the goalkeeping position, like the other two goalkeepers, Zendejas has a team option to pick up to keep him in Kansas City. Zendejas spent most of the season on loan to the Swope Park Rangers where he was able to get consistent playing time. He continues to grow in that position and seeing him make his first team debut in 2018 wouldn't surprise me at all.
Outlook - Kansas City has a strong goalkeeping crop; they have their entrenched starter (Melia), a veteran reserve (Dykstra), and the future starter (Zendejas). While the consistency of keeping the trio together wouldn't hurt, finding another veteran reserve if the club decides not to keep Dykstra wouldn't be the end of the world for KC in the goalkeeping position. In 2018 I'd expect the rotation to be similar to this year, with Melia getting most, if not all, the starts, Dykstra regularly backing up, and Zendejas on loan to Swope Park for another year. Then come 2019 you can make a decision on whether you want to re-sign a soon to be 33 year old Melia, or go all in with Zendejas.
Help from Swope Park - Not sure that help from Swope Park will be needed this year at the goalkeeping position, Darrin MacLeod and David Greczek had some moments in goal for Swope, but I don't think either one showed enough to earn themselves a look with SKC in 2018.
Stay - Melia and Zendejas. Dykstra?
Go - Dykstra?
Saad Abdul-Salaam - A year ago you would have expected Abdul-Salaam to be the entrenched starter, he was coming off a 2016 season where he'd been second on the team in assists with six and led MLS defenders in that category. Then in the offseason, Graham Zusi moved to right back and Abdul-Salaam saw his minutes and appearances cut by more than half. Abdul-Salaam made just 12 appearances and played less than 1,000 minutes for KC in 2017. He has an option that KC has to decide on whether they'll pick up, and with the depth KC has now at the right back position, it may be a question of whether KC will. With Abdul-Salaam still having value in MLS though, I'd think KC would hold onto him, if only for his trade value.
Matt Besler - Earned back the captain's armband in 2017 and had a solid season in 2017. He formed a strong partnership with Ike Opara that saw them record 11 shutouts in MLS play in 2017. While he'll turn 31 before the 2018 season starts, playing center back is a position that is slower to be affected by age, Besler should still be able to be a starting caliber center back for a few more years.
Amer Didic - Signed in the middle of the season from Swope Park, Didic has yet to make his Sporting debut, but has been a consistent performer for the USL side. Over the offseason he earned his first call up to the Canadian youth team, and then earned a call up to the full Canadian national team later in the year. With other departures at the center back position, Didic could find himself in a position to earn a lot of playing time in 2018. He's entering an option year, but with two center backs already needing to be replaced, and Didic's youth and upside, I'd expect him to be back.
Kevin Ellis - Ellis hasn't trained with the team since agreeing to an indefinite leave of absence from the team. While the issues surrounding this incident haven't come to light, Ellis' return to Kansas City as a player seems extremely unlikely at this point. While the homegrown player is still under contract for 2018, I'd expect him to be waived sooner than later.
Jaylin Lindsey - Signed for 2018 late in the 2017 season as a Homegrown player, Lindsey just finished up a run with the US U17 team at the World Cup in India. Lindsey has played center back during his youth career, but given his size, could find himself playing more on the outside in the professional game. Come 2018, unless he really impresses in preseason, I'd expect Lindsey to spend most of the season with the Swope Park Rangers, getting playing time.
Ike Opara - A finalist for Defender of the Year, Opara had by far his best season as a professional, also his healthiest, playing 2700 minutes for Kansas City in MLS play. He started 30 games for KC in 2017, more than he'd started in the last three years combined. The question for Opara will be whether he can continue to replicate that form and stay healthy, or whether the injury issues that have plagued his career come back. He has an option to pick up for 2018, but that seems like a no brainer for Kansas City.
Erik Palmer-Brown - Kansas City's Homegrown player is out of contract and has already signed with Manchester City and will be moving to Europe over the winter with a loan move to the Netherlands or Belgium seeming a likely location. Palmer-Brown just didn't have any breaks go his way this year in terms of playing time for Kansas City. He missed a portion of preseason with the US U20 team for World Cup qualifying, then after captaining the team there, came back injured and missed the start of the season.
When he did return, Sporting's defense was on record breaking pace for goals conceded and he was sent to Swope Park to get him playing time before the World Cup. Upon his return from South Korea, he slowly worked his way to beat out Ellis to become the third center back for KC. That though didn't guarantee him as much playing time as most people would have liked to see him get with Besler and Opara still playing well. Palmer-Brown made just 10 appearances for KC in league play, and with his departure for Europe he'll be seen by many as the biggest missed opportunity on KC's roster in while.
Tyler Pasher - Pasher along with Zendejas were the first two players signed from the Swope Park Rangers to the first team after their strong first seasons with the club. Pasher spent the majority of 2017 with the Rangers, but did make his first team debut in MLS play, a 45 minute appearance against the Vancouver Whitecaps. He didn't have the best of performances in that game, getting pulled at half time. He has an option to pick up, and as an international there will be questions asked of whether KC should use a spot on a player who is with the USL team most of the time.
Seth Sinovic - After a down 2016, Sinovic came back strong in 2017 and earned his starting left back spot back after most people had written him off after 2016 ended. Sinovic still struggles with speedy attackers coming at him, but has still been the better left back of the two players that have played in his place (Jimmy Medranda and Cristian Lobato). Sinovic is also in an option year, and as long as he isn't due a huge raise, keeping him for another year seems like an easy decision.
Colton Storm - Storm spent his entire season on loan with the Swope Park Rangers where he was a regular starter for the club. Sporting's first round draft pick is now in a very crowded right back position for KC with him, Abdul-Salaam, Lindsey, and Graham Zusi all fighting for playing time. Unfortunately I don't see the club carrying four right backs into 2018 meaning there will likely be someone leaving with Abdul-Salaam and Storm being the prime candidates. Like Abdul-Salaam, Storm has an option to pick up if KC wants to keep him.
Graham Zusi - Zusi looked to revive his career at the right back position for the club, he lead the team in assists with eight in league play, the most he's had since the 2014 season. He made the transition to defense quite well and was able to keep attackers pinned deeper because of his ability to get forward. The question will be how much longer he can keep it up; he's entering the last year of his contract and is still a designated player at this point. Obviously there will be questions asked about how smart it is to have a right back as a DP, but when he continues to produce it's also hard to argue against it.
Outlook - KC's starting defense is starting to get a little long in the tooth. While KC can probably make it another season with this core, KC needs to start getting playing time for younger players, especially on the wing. If Peter Vermes sees Jimmy Medranda as Sinovic's permanent replacement at left back, he needs to settle on that position for him and slow the amount of rotation he does all over the field. If Medranda isn't, Vermes needs to find a player who can spell Sinovic more and eventually replace him.
On the right side, Sporting needs to do something with their glut of right backs. Carrying four in 2018 makes no sense for the club. With one being your starter (Zusi) and one being an off budget, homegrown player (Lindsey) KC likely needs to part with either Abdul-Salaam or Storm, either by trade, waive, or expansion draft, there are other areas of the team that need help that the roster spot could be used for. Abdul-Salaam probably has the most trade value and is the older of the two, turning 27 in the 2018 season.
In the middle, KC also needs to get younger and they need to retool. They're losing at least one center back (Palmer-Brown) and very likely two (Ellis), leaving them with just three center backs, Besler, Opara, and Didic as a backup [Editor: it could be argued James Musa is a Lawrence Olum type but we’ll leave him in the midfield for now]. Sporting will need to add at least one, if not two central defenders to their roster in 2018. One of those two probably needs to be an experienced player who could at least start the season as the third center back. They could look in free agency where there are aging veterans like Bobby Boswell or Bobby Burling or maybe in the re-entry draft. They could also look to SPR like they did with Didic.
Help from Swope Park - There are some options if KC decided to bring in players from Swope Park this offseason. On the outside, the club has already brought in Parker Maher as a USL signing for a US Open Cup game earlier this year. The left back from Joplin, Missouri could be a candidate to be a short term stop gap at left back if Vermes decides that Medranda isn't going to play there.
As for center backs, the club could look at Oumar Ballo, although he'll turn 27 in 2018 and has really fallen out of favor at SPR this season. Other options are Liam Doyle who would take up an international spot or Dakota Barnathan, who has been Didic's partner for SPR during their playoff run.
Stay - Abdul-Salaam/Storm, Besler, Didic, Lindsey, Opara, Sinovic, Zusi
Go - Abdul-Salaam/Storm (whichever doesn't stay), Ellis, Palmer-Brown, Pasher