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An inside look at Sporting Kansas City (with analysis)

Assistant Coach and Sporting Legend Kerry Zavagnin reveals where Sporting KC stands and where it is looking as silly season reaches its height and the 2018 season approaches in this phone interview conducted this past Wednesday.  

MLS: Preseason-Sporting Kansas City vs New England Revolution Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It is t-minus eight days until the new Designated player Yohan Croizet meets all his teammates when players report for preseason camp Saturday, January 20. And it is t-minus 15 days until the first glimpse of how the side may look when Sporting KC takes on trialists from USL club Phoenix Rising FC in its first preseason tilt.

Long-time prime-time offensive sparks Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber have departed, as have solid backup right back Saad Abdul Salaam and promising young forward Latif Blessing for a side that scored only 40 goals in 34 games, placing SKC 18th out of 22 clubs. But a strong core remains, mostly on the defensive side as the players that formed the backbone of MLS’s best defense return. spoke with Sporting Legend and Assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin to get his point of view on a number of topics this past Wednesday. Zavagnin is Manager Peter Vermes’ longest tenured assistant, gaining the position in 2009, and recently completed the U.S. Soccer Pro Course – the highest soccer coaching licensing offered in North America. As a player, he patrolled the midfield for the Wizards for nine seasons, winning MLS Cup in his first season with the club in 2000. But 2004 was a banner year for the holding midfielder as the team won the U.S. Open Cup and Zavagnin garnered MLS Best Eleven and All-Star accolades. Lastly, Zavangin earned 21 caps for US National Team during his career.

This talk follows Zavagnin’s revealing that Sporting Kansas City is on the verge of making some international signings to bolster its current roster (see here) and begins as Zavagnin makes his way from the annual preseason retreat for the staff hosted by the Sporting Club owners.

TBT: The MLS Player Combine and SuperDraft are being held January 11-19 in Orlando and Philadelphia respectively. How is the team approaching this year’s SuperDraft, particularly their two first-round picks (#s 13 & 18)?

KZ: “The draft has changed over the last few years with the [development of the] academies and developing players within your own club. Unless you have a really high draft pick, you are looking at drafting players that will be put right into Swope Park Rangers. So it’s left to be seen because we have two picks in the first round. We have strategies of drafting the best talent that is on the board at the time, but we’ve also identified a couple key positions that we would like to get deeper in. Once we get through the combine and to the table, those two things will [dictate our choices].”

My take – Only if the Sporting KC brass is really high on a player will we see any draft day trades to move up. Center back Kevin Ellis is possible trade bait in addition to the fact that Sporting KC could also trade their picks in a package deal to move up.

TBT: With Targeted and General Allocation Money and the numerous classification of players and the salary cap, etc., Major League Soccer seems to make things difficult for clubs to build their rosters. How does Sporting Kansas City navigate making acquisitions?

KZ: “We have two very good people at the helm in Director of Player Personnel Brian Bliss and Assistant Director Meghan Cameron who are helping to manage those categories and manage our [salary] cap extremely well. Peter is well-versed in that as well. At the moment, our cap is in one of the best positions that we’ve had in a very long time. So we are primed to add quality to this roster and hopefully we will be doing that in the coming weeks.”

My take – With the reported contract extensions of MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara and MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Tim Melia (see here) since Wednesday, the cap space has surely eroded some. But expect Sporting KC to act judiciously. It may be wise to keep room for some summer window maneuvering as well if the new signings don’t pan out as planned.

TBT: Clubs like Atlanta United who just added 18 year-old Argentine starlet Ezequiel Barco with an alleged transfer fee of $15 Million, and debutants LAFC and MLS Champions Toronto FC are splashing more and more cash for players in recent times. How does Sporting KC fit within the burgeoning MO of MLS teams often obtaining younger and more talented players in transactions that require higher transfer fees?

KZ: “Our ownership has always been willing to invest wisely. One of the strengths that Peter and our ownership group have collectively done is looked for opportunities. I don’t think we are ever going to change from that. As younger, more accomplished quality players are coming to this league and as more money is being put into the league as far as transfers and salaries, it’s only going to raise the prices on all the players that are looking to come. We are always going to look to invest wisely. Does our ownership group have the willingness to invest in players? I think it’s there.”

My take – Yes, hats must be tipped to Sporting Club for their wise and wily application of resources. But until multiple difference makers are on the field consistently in key spots to raise the level of the team’s surely solid core and to raise the play in key moments, Sporting KC’s loyal fans will not be consistently and rightfully rewarded with an elite MLS side.

TBT: The signing of French Midfielder Yohan Croizet as a designated player and the recent trading of Benny Feilhaber seem to signal that Croizet will be the playmaker, the #10. Is the plan for Croizet to be the man?

KZ: “You always have these optimistic expectations of players that they are going to be what your vision meant them to be. There’s a little bit of an adaptation period [to MLS for foreign players], but I don’t expect there to be a long one because of the characteristics and qualities that he has. He’s a very powerful player, strong player, that brings a lot of energy to the game. We’re going to see that pretty quickly. Where he plays on the field – whether it is slotting into the center part of midfield or playing wide (which he can and has done in Belgium) is yet to be seen. He’s going to contribute pretty early in his time here. He’s going to have a really good first season for us.”

TBT: How is Croizet a different player from Feilhaber?

KZ: “Yohan is much more of a vertical player. Benny has, over the course of his career, been more of a possession-based guy, though he can deliver the final pass. He does a lot of his damage through the pass. Yohan does a lot more damage with his surging and with the way he runs with the ball and how he penetrates vertically without the ball – he finds himself in a lot of good positions in and around the box.”

My take – This style of player is something that the team has certainly lacked. I look forward to Croizet’s energy, and it will be interesting to see if another possible #10 is signed before the season begins. But I think the idea here is that Ilie Sanchez and Croizet combined, as Ilie has shown the ability to be a deep-lying playmaker in addition to his more defensive midfield general role, will be greater and more diverse and dangerous than Ilie and Feilhaber who were similar in many ways.

TBT: The acquisition of Khiry Shelton (6 goals and 10 assists in 2485 minutes with NYFC over three seasons) was a compelling one. What motivated Sporting KC to deal for him?

KZ: “Khiry was a player that we were lucky enough to have in when he was in college. He came for the summer and spent a week with us. We were able to see him up close. It is pretty obvious what his attributes are: he’s big [6’4”, 191 lbs.], he’s strong, he’s powerful, and he’s displayed a lot of promise. In his experiences in the league and in New York, he has shown glimpses of what he can be. Our objective is to get more out of him than what the opportunities he was presented in New York [gave him]. His physical attributes are something we’ve been lacking in the last couple of years – that physical presence in the attacking part of the field. It’s a welcome addition for us.”

My take – Amen. This team needs more size throughout the roster. (Please let Sporting KC be more dangerous on set pieces!) And I believe in the staff’s ability to get more out of a player whose numbers are pretty good for his career and is still young at 24.

TBT: With the transfer of Erik Palmer-Brown and the likely departure of Kevin Ellis (see here), depth at center back is seemingly slim. Is center back a position being targeted for acquisitions?

KZ: “Yeah, it is [a focus]. Ike had a banner year, and [Team captain Matt] Besler has been a stalwart in the backline. But we all know that it is a long season, injuries happen. And while we have Amer Didic and James Musa – both players that can step in – we are looking to add another piece in that area of the field, which would give us insurance but also push the existing players within the team to become better than they were last year.”

My take – An experienced center back is what Sporting KC needs as depth at center back. Look for one of the international signings that Zavagnin alluded to be an experienced and solid, if unspectacular, center back.

TBT: Days after Sporting KC was knocked out of the playoffs, part-owner and Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman stated the club would sign a #10 (playmaker) and a #9 (center forward). Is the staff actively pursuing a #9 at the moment?

KZ: “I don’t remember in recent memory that we’ve ever said no to a really good goal scorer. They are a hot commodity and one of the more difficult positions to acquire. We are on the search and things are moving along in a couple of directions in that position. It would be nice if we could add a few more attacking pieces because we need to get stronger in the attacking end of the field. But that doesn’t just rest on bringing players in, it’s using our existing roster and developing the players into being a bit more proficient in front of the goal.”

My take – Claudio Bieler and Omar Bravo are the purest goal scorers Sporting KC has signed in recent memory. However, neither had all the qualities the staff were seeking. Finding, and signing, a player that has all the traits – willing and able to be a hound dog defensively, team-first mentality, able to fit into the locker room, etc. – and be a pure goal scorer is a tall order. However, Sporting’s style of play is evolving and perhaps the expectations for a center forward have changed some. A center forward will be signed. Keep your fingers-crossed that he is the answer. If he is, it may be an especially fun season at Children’s Mercy Park. And about Zavagnin’s last sentence … players either have the ability and mentality necessary to consistently score goals or they don’t. Training can only improve the ability nominally. What can make a significant difference for goal scoring as a team is tactics and putting pieces together that just have that chemistry. The Sporting Kansas City staff has shown the ability to do both in the past, and that leads to success. Yet, a consistent natural goal scorer is needed to gain that home playoff game and a deep run into the playoffs.

TBT: Thank you very much for your time, Kerry. It is always a pleasure. Enjoy Orlando and Philly, but I know you are ready to get back on the field with the boys.

KZ: I’m ready to get on the field. Good talking with you, and we look forward to seeing you soon.