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11 Thoughts on the Diego Rubio for Kelyn Rowe Trade

We get angry, sad, maybe irrational and try to make sense of the big trade of a beloved star.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Sporting KC
Oct 15, 2017; Kansas City, KS, USA; Sporting Kansas City forward Diego Rubio (11) reacts after missing an open goal against the Houston Dynamo during the second half at Children’s Mercy Park. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

What the hell just happened? Going into the offseason there was so much talk about not rebuilding after nearly making it to MLS Cup but instead simply reloading to go after the CONCACAF Champions League. Most of the upper end of the roster was under contract for 2019 and the team seemed like it would quickly reload and make a run at numerous trophies (that’ll be harder to do with games in February and and overhaul of the center forward spot).

Instead, the team has lost the two primary starters at center forward in a matter of days. First, Khiry Shelton was announced to be heading overseas and now Sporting Kansas City traded the striker with the most goals per 90 minutes outside of Josef Martinez to a conference rival.

Let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly from this deal. Much like after the playoff defeat, let’s start negatively.

Does this Deal Make Any Sense?

On the surface it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. With Shelton gone, Rubio was the presumed starter at striker. He scored 0.92 Goals/90 last season, which was tied for second in Major League Soccer. He was also only 25-years-old.

In exchange for that Sporting KC got back 27-year-old midfielder Kelyn Rowe who is coming off his worst season ever in MLS. In addition, they got $200,000 in General Allocation Money and $100,000 in Targeted Allocation Money to go with Rowe. Chump change compared to 18 months ago when they fleeced Orlando City in the Dom Dwyer trade that netted $1.6 million in allocation money ($400,000 in GAM, $500,000 in TAM, and another $700,000 in unknown allocation money).

Center Forward > Midfielder

As if you don’t know, it’s very hard to find a quality center forward in MLS, let alone around the world (#StrikerSearch). Rubio was under utilized by Peter Vermes, but it would appear he will be very hard to replace and the pittance of allocation money won’t help. And by all appearances he was traded for “depth.” Per Sam McDowell in the KC Star:

“And in his quest this offseason to augment his roster with depth, Vermes believes he has landed a valuable piece.”

Let’s say that again... “to augment his roster with depth.” I think Kelyn Rowe is a very good player, but it’s hard to see adding depth at talented positions being more valuable than a starter (or even a super sub) at center forward.

Center Forward > Winger

Ok, maybe Rowe’s a winger and not a midfielder. Vermes said he “can play multiple positions as a midfielder or as a winger.” Either way, I don’t imagine he’s a starter. Look at those five positions (two wings and three in the midfield). At winger it’s some combination of Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell, Gerso Fernandes, the newly acquired Rodney Wallace (though the team lists him as a left back he’s mostly played as a wide midfielder or winger) and before today I would have said Krisztian Nemeth might be a winger.

Vermes also said, “[Rowe] solidifies our midfield for the long term, and he can play on the left or right wing.” That seems to indicate they see him as a midfielder long term and maybe a winger as needed. He’d definitely fall into the #8 or #10 positions as I can’t see him playing the #6 occupied by Ilie Sanchez. Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez are firmly entrenched as starters and future attacking midfield star Gianluca Busio awaits his chance from the bench. Plus, Yohan Croizet really got going as 2018 wore on and he’s quality midfielder depth (and some would say wing depth).

Contract Comparison

Maybe it’s as Vermes says above, about “the long term.” Diego Rubio was on a deal that ran through just the end of 2019 that paid him $266,875.00 in 2018 and reportedly The Star said he was “thought to be seeking a raise.” Rightfully so. Even in limited minutes, the CF is often the highest paid player on the team. Instead 12 players made more than Rubio last season (including two backups).

As for Rowe. It’s unclear how long his contract is for. He signed an extension in 2016, but there are no details about how long it was for. Transfermarkt lists him on a deal that expires at the end of 2019 as well, though it’s possible there is an option year or years on the deal as that is common in MLS. Add to that the fact that he made $258,000.00 in 2018 and I’d throw this category into the “ugly” portion of this story.

If Vermes and Sporting KC don’t have Rowe locked up long term or for at least a few years, this seems like a terrible move. I’d rather play Rubio on an expiring deal and if he continues to perform sign him long term to Designated Player money. The kid is good. Rowe could be gone in a year anyways if that information is right.

Statistical Comparison

They aren’t the same type of player, so it’s probably not fair to compare stats, but who ever said we have to be fair? First, let’s start with Rowe. His are easy to obtain since his entire career is in MLS. Here are his league stats only.

Kelyn Rowe Career Stats

2018 New England Revolution 27 18 1 1611 2 35 8 46 2 6 0
2017 New England Revolution 23 21 1 1897 7 34 10 31 3 3 0
2016 New England Revolution 33 32 5 2787 7 64 25 43 6 2 0
2015 New England Revolution 33 21 7 1924 6 51 24 38 4 1 0
2014 New England Revolution 27 21 5 1960 5 59 15 19 3 3 0
2013 New England Revolution 33 26 7 2528 8 74 21 27 3 4 0
2012 New England Revolution 30 21 3 1897 5 43 20 20 5 1 0
Career Totals - 206 160 29 14604 40 360 123 224 26 20 0

As you can see, Rowe had career lows in minutes, starts, goals (tied with 2017) and assists. He had a career high, despite less minutes and games, in fouls. Let’s blame Brad Friedel’s awful system with the Revolution. To be fair to Rowe, he did score a bit in the Open Cup and playoffs early in his career but he hasn’t had an assist outside of league play since 2016 or a goal since 2013. All-time he has six goals outside league play and four assists, mostly early in his career.

Here are Diego Rubio’s stats. I’ve done the math and combined his playoff, US Open Cup and loan stats in since he’s played around the world and in lots of competitions. It’s my table, but it’s from Transfermarkt’s data.

Diego Rubio Career Stats

Season Team Appearances Minutes Goals Assists YC RC
Season Team Appearances Minutes Goals Assists YC RC
2018 Sporting KC 25 1085 10 6 6 0
2018 Swope Park Rangers 3 225 1 0 1 0
2017 Sporting KC 20 1420 7 2 3 0
2017 Swope Park Rangers 2 92 1 0 0 0
2016 Sporting KC 20 678 3 2 2 0
2016 Swope Park Rangers 2 171 1 0 1 0
15/16 Real Valladolid CF 14 466 0 1 4 0
15/16 Sporting CP B 5 377 0 2 1 0
14/15 Sporting CP B 22 1857 14 3 6 0
2014 Sandnes Ulf 27 1833 8 2 3 1
13/14 Pandurii Targu Jiu 5 161 0 0 2 0
12/13 Sporting CP B* 28 2056 8 4 10 1
11/12 Sporting CP 17 521 1 1 3 1
10/11 Colo Colo 10 445 6 1 1 0

Again, not fair to compare them, but when he gets on the field, Rubio scores goals. That’s hard to replace.

Rowe’s Value Versus Rubio’s Value

Stats aren’t everything, but if you talk to people, the recent past is always in their mind. I’m a huge into mixed martial arts (MMA) and fans and judges often score action late in rounds higher than actions early in the round. If a big strike gets landed or a key takedown then that fighter can often steal a round.

If this was a fight, Rubio is stealing all the rounds. He played great for SKC when he got onto the pitch in 2018 and he had a very strong MLS Cup Playoff run (two goals, two assists in just three matches). If Rowe was in a fight, he laid on the bottom and got pounded on for the last year (or two).

His value would appear to be at or near an all-time low. Yet the Rapids flipped a 32-year-old left back (who honestly, I like and think is talented in Edgar Castillo) to the Revs for Rowe. They did that obviously because Vermes wanted Rowe. They packaged that with $300,000 in Garber Bucks and got themselves another starting striker (along with former KC man Kei Kamara who they got last week). It feels like Vermes got robbed. Especially because of these sentences from the Star.

“Colorado contacted Sporting KC multiple times this offseason in pursuit of Rubio. Vermes had hoped to land a substantial amount of money in any deal. Instead, he got money and a player he’s long coveted.”

Emphasis mine. Sporting didn’t have to make that move and it seems like they could have gotten more. They had all the leverage. Where is Orlando when you need them to overpay?

Trading in the Conference

Another weird deal out of this is that it’s a trade within the conference. The Rapids are bad and may very well still be bad in 2019. But their offense just got a heck of a lot better. If they sign Rubio long term though, they’ve tied a lot of money up in their attack. Let us all hope this move doesn’t come back to bite KC.

Who will Play Center Forward for Sporting KC?

In 2018 this debate raged on all year but it was mostly a two-horse race between Rubio and Shelton with Salloi and Croizet sprinkled in. That was until Nemeth joined the team late in the summer. After joining SKC he only got 386 minutes and one goal and an assist. Going into the offseason, it seemed like they would all three battle. Now Rubio and Shelton are gone. If you are crossing your fingers that Nemeth isn’t the guy, just know crossing your fingers doesn’t work.

Per the Kansas City Star, “the departure of Rubio is not intended to be the first in a string of moves to alter the top of Sporting Kansas City’s formation. Instead, it’s an opening for Krisztian Nemeth to seize the starting striker job in Kansas City.”

“Nemeth is someone I have an immense amount of confidence in,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “I truly believe that he has the ability to be one of the top strikers in our league.”

I believed that too as recently as the beginning of last year. In his limited minutes, he didn’t show that. Vermes believes he needs more time.

“[Nemeth] came in two-thirds of the way into the season, and other guys had made their mark who had been with us from the get-go,” Vermes said. “He just needs to have a full season with us, and I think he has every ability to be one of the best forwards in our league.”

As for the recently acquired Erik Hurtado, in the last four seasons he’s started a combined 24 games and he doesn’t always play at center forward. He’s depth. That’s it. Unless he’s the new Khiry?!

There is Always the Possibility of the DP #9, Right?

If the above information doesn’t kill that for you, I don’t know what will. How about this? After the season, Vermes had this to say.

“If we can find those [starting-caliber] guys in positions we’re looking for, then yes, everything is open,” Vermes said. “I don’t go into this saying, ‘OK, we got our starting lineup back, so we’re all good.’ I’m trying to improve the team. You don’t get everything you want in every position, but we have some very specific areas of focus, and then we have some other areas that, hey, if we can find something better than what we have today, we’re going to seriously consider it.

Again, emphasis mine. “If we can find something better.” In that same story Vermes said, “you never take a blind eye to improving your team. We’re in the world market, so you’re constantly looking at your roster. It’s not as if we’re looking at our team and saying that we have all these guys signed to multi-year deals so we’re going to stop scouting and stop going after players. We’re still out there looking for some things.”

I read that as, ‘if they fall into our laps ala Felipe Gutierrez, we’ll sign them.’ Vermes learned his lesson on promising a DP #9 since it can be tough to do. Don’t hold your breathe.

But Sporting KC could Trade for Someone, Right?

Vermes has been wheeling and dealing in the last week. I imagine he’s about to take off for the holidays. What will be a real kick in the pants is when Ike Opara gets traded before the week is over. After all, they have two high priced center backs (Matt Besler & Andreu Fontas) and just signed what appears to be solid depth in Botond Barath. I could honestly see it happening.

The question is who is out there and do they need/want Opara? When I look around at the league’s strikers that are at or above DP wages (because, go big right?) it’s hard to imagine any of them with SKC. There are guys with injury concerns (Adama Diomande). There are super high priced players that likely don’t want to come to KC and Sporting likely don’t want to pay. Maybe Ola Kamara from the LA Galaxy? They do need defense.

But remember, Sporting KC have nine players over the ‘max’ budget (from highest to lowest: Gutierrez, Russell, Nemeth, Fontas, Espinoza, Besler, Graham Zusi, Croizet and Gerso). Four of those basically make $1 million or more (Fontas is technically $0.04 short of a cool million). That’s a lot of salary to buy down to get another DP though with discretionary TAM anything is possible.

In Conclusion

To end this sad, mope-fest, I’ll leave you with a parting thought. Could it just be that Vermes and Rubio just don’t get along? Rubio was statistically and visually the best striker on the team, but he only played 781 league minutes despite being mostly healthy. Vermes seemed to praise him for going on loan to the Swope Park Rangers and keeping a good attitude off the bench. But maybe there is more to the story.

When Dwyer was traded, the average fan I would say was sad, but I saw the logic in it and it mostly worked out. Maybe it’s time to once again trust Vermes and the process.

Obviously, I wish Rubio the best (against all the non-KC teams) and I truly hope Nemeth works out and regains his 2015 form for Sporting. At this point though, I’m stunned and pessimistic.