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Swope Park Rangers: Who Stays and Who Goes

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With the 2018 USL season over and the short offseason underway, we look at every player on the SPR roster and their likelihood to return.

Thad Bell

There are a lot of questions for Swope going into 2019. Where will they play? Will they stay in the USL Championship or move down (along with many MLS B-Teams to USL League One)? Will Paulo Nagamura return as the coach (yes, of course)? We’ll get answers to those questions as the offseason continues, but first, let’s attack who will be back next season.

First though, 2018 was not as successful as 2016 and 2017 and how could it be? The first two seasons in existence saw the Swope Park Rangers go all the way to the USL Cup Finals. What more could Sporting Kansas City want from their B-Team? Well to be frank, Peter Vermes will keep telling you that it’s not about winning, it’s about development and creating a path from the SKC Academy all the way to the first team. With that in mind, let’s take a look at every player on the roster and how likely they are to return.

I’ll break the players down into four categories: definitely back, probably back, maybe back and likely gone. I’ve been doing this for the last couple of seasons and I’ve learned quite a bit about the USL and it’s massive turnover. In 2016 I was slightly off base with my predictions. I just thought they’d keep talented players around, but there is a definite shuffle in the lower leagues. In 2017 I did much better, but there were some surprise players who left (mostly because they declined offers from KC). That includes Christian Duke, Nansel Selbol (who is a free agent again) and Max Rugova (who signed in Germany).

We will break things down by position. Let’s start in the back and move forward.

Goalkeepers

Definitely Back — None

Adrian Zendejas and Eric Dick are actually on Sporting KC contracts, so they aren’t covered by this story. But they both are out of contract with options for 2019 so we’ll know more on that when the MLS season ends.

Probably Back — None

With Dick and Zendejas getting most of the minutes, it’s far from a sure thing any keeper would want to come back in 2019 to possibly ride the bench again.

Maybe Back — Darrin MacLeod, Christian Herrera

Both rostered goalkeepers for SPR barely got on the field. MacLeod had five starts and Herrera had four. It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t want to go somewhere they could potentially get more minutes unless some sort of assurances have been made from Kansas City.

Likely Gone — None

I probably could move one or both keepers down here. MacLeod has been around two years so he may be more likely to leave but Herrera might be more worth another look.

Defenders

Definitely Back — Justin Bilyeu, Kaveh Rad

Thanks to some inside information from our own Thad Bell, I feel pretty good on this. Bilyeu has remained with KC and trained with the first team even after the season ended. Left backs are tough to find and he’s not quite soccer old at just 24-years of age.

Kaveh Rad is one of the two Rad twins and at just 17-years-old, they’ll likely spend their time with the Academy but they could look for expanded roles with SPR in 2019.

Probably Back — Matt Lewis

Lewis was a Homegrown signing of Sporting KC and he accepted a release and re-signing to SPR about halfway through the 2018 season. He should come back but he didn’t get a lot of opportunities and may look to continue elsewhere.

Maybe Back — Parker Maher, Massimo McGuire

As mentioned above, left backs are tough to find. Plus Maher went to school at Missouri State, is from Joplin, MO and formerly played for St. Louis FC (USL). It seems that if he wants to keep pursuing soccer as a career the 25-year-old might do it in state.

If you haven’t heard of McGuire, he only appeared in the preseason and he’s a member of the SKC Academy. At 18-years of age he seems ripe to graduate from the Academy and head to college soon or move on to an SPR contract.

Likely Gone — Dakota Barnathan, Bryam Rebellon

Barnathan featured a lot more in 2017 than in 2018. He ended with just 10 appearances and I could definitely see him looking for a chance elsewhere.

As for Rebellon, he had a stunning amount of appearances with 27, but he’s already 26 and he was mostly poor in 2018. He also had four yellow cards and a red card despite just 10 starts and 1,112 minutes. I could be off base though, as he played on all three lines and actually finished the season as a forward. The positional diversity is valued from top to bottom with Sporting KC.

Midfielders

Definitely Back — Felipe Hernandez, Sebastian Cruz, Jahon Rad

Hernandez is a borderline first team player who played in 34 games last year. He is likely to go to preseason with Sporting KC again and he could find himself signed to a first team contract. Either way, he’ll get significant minutes with SPR in 2019 unless he surprises everyone and pulls a Christian Duke and leaves. Duke can tell him though, the grass isn’t always greener. At Orange County Duke wasn’t an everyday starter like he was in KC.

Cruz spent the preseason with Sporting KC. That says something about this kid. He played extensively for the SKC Academy but still found his way into nine SPR appearances including a start. He got on the field in the playoffs. I’d be very shocked if he’s not back for at least half the season before he potentially heads to college.

Jahon, like his brother, seems destined for more time with SPR. Definitely might be strong, but that’s just an Academy contract and one worth using.

Probably Back — Rassambek Akhmatov

Akhmatov was a midseason addition and a regular starter by the time the year ended. He wasn’t flashy, but he was mostly effective. He’s just 22 and seems like a good candidate to return.

Maybe Back — Thierry Catherine, Ryan Fessler, Will Little, Matheus Silva

Catherine joined later in the season but never got on the field. He’s just 21-years-old so it could be they added him when they did to have him for 2019. Then again, it could be he didn’t show anything and he’ll be gone. So hard to know.

Fessler is a SKC Academy player who is 17-years-old but didn’t get on the field. In all likelihood he’ll be back unless the team goes another direction on their Academy contracts in 2019, so that’s why we’ll leave him as a maybe.

Little is another odd case. He’s been with SPR for all three seasons. In 2016 on an Academy contract he played just 92 minutes. He signed a full contract in 2017 but never played. Then in 2018 he got just six appearances for 119 minutes. He seems to keep sticking around and he’s still only 20 but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go. He simply cannot get on the field. Past players have headed to places like Nashville SC, where former SKC staff member Mike Jacobs runs the show.

Silva is a player who made his debut in 2018 out of position at fullback and was absolutely torched. He then moved to his more natural defensive midfielder spot and still struggled. But after a few months, he’d really started to find his rhythm. At just 21-years-old, he’s worth bringing back to at least be a backup to Wan Kuzain when he’s with the first team.

Likely Gone — Roman Knox, Chase Minter

Knox is away in college at the University of North Carolina. It would be a surprise if he dropped out to sign a SPR contract.

Minter is a USL veteran who never really found his place on this roster. He’s 26 and will probably continue to bounce around as a journeyman. I don’t see him having a spot on this team in the future.

Forwards

Definitely Back — None

It’s tough out there.

Probably Back — Tyler Blackwood, Wilson Harris

I’m going off a hunch here. I talked to Blackwood after the SPR/Phoenix Rising playoff game and he genuinely seemed like he wanted to return. He’s 27, which is somewhat old for a USL player. That said, every team needs veteran players to set good examples for the kids. Blackwood plays incredibly hard, he can run for days so he’s in great shape and it’s very likely he practices hard since he was getting on the field ahead of a lot of younger players. He’ll be a good role model for the youth that will surround him. Also, he’s a super nice guy. I hope he’s back.

I spoke poorly of Blackwood at times throughout the season but he seemed to figure out the system over time and there is something to be said for letting players learn a system and keeping them in it. Plus, despite his slow start, he finished with eight goals and was an integral member of the offense. Someone in the comments once called him SPR’s Khiry Shelton. I took it as, and I think it was intended to be, an insult. While Shelton doesn’t always look good, he’s shown there are places in KC’s 4-3-3 system for players like him and Blackwood.

Wilson Harris should be back. He signed a contract with SPR instead of going to college. It’d be very disappointing if he wasn’t. Then again, he struggled to breakthrough and get past Blackwood, Barry and Belmar. He had 15 appearances and seven starts, but I’d expect him back.

Maybe Back — Hadji Barry, Camilo Benitez, Jose Barragan, Sean Karani, Ethan Vanacore-Decker

Barry is a weird case. He’s a USL veteran at 25-years-old and he had an outstanding season in 2018. He scored 19 goals, the best ever total for any Ranger. He was a work in progress early in the season but he REALLY got going as the season wore on. After the conclusion of the Western Conference Semifinals against Phoenix Rising, Barry was in no mood to talk about whether he would or wouldn’t return in 2019. He seems like a candidate for a fringe Sporting KC roster spot (the one Kharlton Belmar currently has could be in jeopardy). Or he could go to an independent USL team (much like Phoenix Rising) who are willing to pay more for higher quality USL talent.

Benitez is another weird case. He was signed from the SKC Academy and he got on the field a lot early in the season. He ended 2018 with just eight appearances and a single start. It’s unclear why he couldn’t get on ahead of older players. Was he hurt (the USL doesn’t release nearly as much injury information as MLS)? He could be another Rugova type player who looks elsewhere for more playing time.

Karani had four appearances on his Academy contract but played just 33 minutes. He’s another player who will likely look for a larger role in 2019 since he’s still just 17. Then again, who really knows with these borderline Academy guys.

Barragan is an 18-year-old version of Catherine above. Late addition, no playing time. Tough to know.

Vanacore-Decker joined the team late but ultimately made five appearances and even scored a pretty goal. He’s 24, so he’s not “young” in soccer. He’s probably gone, but with so little time to see what he had, he could sneak back for another year.

Likely Gone — None

I’ll probably look back at this as a mistake. A bunch of those “maybes” probably belong here.

Sporting KC Players

Lots of SKC loanees make up the roster for SPR on any given week. In 2018, in order of most appearances it goes: Amer Didic (27), Graham Smith (27), Colton Storm (23), Kharlton Belmar (22), Wan Kuzain (22), Erik Dick (15), Adrian Zendejas (12), Gianluca Busio (10), Jaylin Lindsey (6), Brad Evans (4), Diego Rubio (3), Cristian Lobato (2), Khiry Shelton (2) and Seth Sinovic (1).

As I touched on in the MLS offseason schedule, lots of those players are out of contract with options that have to be picked up for 2019. Players like Kuzain, Busio and Lindsey are already locked in for next year and should get minutes with SPR. Tyler Freeman, whos contract starts on January 1st, 2019, will likely be down with SPR a bunch as well. At least one, if not both, of the goalkeepers should keep their SKC contracts and rotate SPR minutes in 2019. And I suspect Graham Smith gets his option picked up as a 2018 first round SuperDraft pick and someone who was the captain for SPR for much of the year.

While I really like Amer Didic and Kharlton Belmar, I could easily see them being gone. They are edge of the SKC roster players who are quite good in the USL but just can’t seem to get much a chance in MLS. Didic has still not played a first team minute in league play. I think it’s almost a certainty that Colton Storm will be gone (also zero first team league minutes) unless he wants to sign a contract with SPR instead of SKC.

In Summary

I’ve only put two SPR contracted players as “definitely back” (Bilyeu and Hernandez). If you add in the players who are “probably back” that brings the total to six (Akhmatov, Lewis, Blackwood and Harris). That’s the exact number of players SPR brought back from 2017 to 2018 (if you leave out Lebo Moloto who was traded to Nashville SC). The USL is a harsh world where roster turnover is a huge deal from year to year. That said, there will be plenty of Academy players who return as well as SKC loanees. So while the team will change, it won’t be as drastic as it currently seems.

We’ll have much more on the Rangers throughout the offseason. For more Swope Park Rangers information, be sure to head to our SPR section of the The Blue Testament.