Happy Holidays, fellow Kansas City soccer adherents. If your head has been spinning from all the Sporting Kansas City-related news, it isn’t just the adult eggnog. A bevy of acquired players, from the wing to central defense to the attack, all have real implications on Sporting KC’s depth chart—and potentially on its payroll as well. To help break down these changes, a few of The Blue Testament’s contributors took a few minutes out of their Winter Wonderland weeks to talk together about what we might expect from SKC’s newest players.
Mike Kuhn, The Blue Testament editor
Chad Smith, TBT editor
Mark Baehr, TBT contributing author
Eric Atcheson, TBT contributing author
Eric Atcheson (EA): Hi, Mike and Mark. Let’s start with the first of these changes—the free agent signing of Rodney Wallace. I know that for SKC fans who recall the (un)memorable tenures of Justin Mapp and Brad Davis, simply the term “free agent signing” might lead to involuntary twitching. Does Wallace buck the club’s unfortunate trend of underwhelming free agent signings?
Mike Kuhn (MK): KC certainly hasn’t had a lot of success with free agents in Mapp and Evans (though I’ll argue that Evans was a good locker room guy), so the bar is low, but I think Wallace will be a solid addition—not great, but eat some solid minutes, especially with Sinovic’s age and Jimmy Medranda out until about summer.
Mark Baehr (MB): Sporting will eventually need a replacement for Seth Sinovic with his age, but Wallace is most definitely not it. Medranda may end up being that guy, but he could just as easily spend more minutes in midfield than in defense. Wallace looks like a very short term addition to help the team better handle a more congested schedule, but all in all this is probably the most underwhelming signing of the lot.
Chad Smith (CS): I have to agree with Mike and Mark. Wallace seems like a low risk signing who is versatile enough to play at multiple spots. I think it’s interesting that Vermes sees him as a left back, but he can obviously add depth on the wing and he’s played in the midfield before, though I don’t see him as a fit for Sporting Kansas City’s three man midfield.
MK: Wallace is a player who I’ve thought for years would be a great addition to KC in Peter Vermes’ system, though. At the time, I’d always thought that would be as more of a wing player, but despite what some New York City FC and Portland Timbers fans have said I’m okay with the idea of at least trying him at left back. He’d basically be a lesser Zusi on the left side of the defense.
EA: I think this may come down to how well Jimmy Medranda comes back from his injury. Knee injuries are not to be trifled with, and the list of promising players who were never quite the same after knee surgeries that required long periods of rehab is a long one. In the interim, I would expect Wallace to offer depth behind Sinovic with CONCACAF Champions League play on the horizon, but whether or not Wallace has much a role to play later in the season will depend in part on how Medranda comes back. I also think that Peter Vermes’s willingness to part with Cristian Lobato indicates that he is confident in his options at left back with Wallace in tow, even though I fervently wish to never again see the Yohan Croizet at left back experiment.
EA: Why don’t we move across the defensive line to center back Botond Barath?
MB: He sounds like a good addition to the roster, though I don’t expect him to take Ike’s spot in the starting lineup.
MK: I think this move makes sense for having four center backs who could regularly start. It leaves Graham Smith with a season long loan to Swope and allows the other four to split time. If you’re not following along with that strategy, the other way you go with Barath is to assume that it’s to help soften the blow of losing Opara in a trade that he’s requested. I think with a condensed schedule rotation will be needed more and giving Besler and Opara a break isn’t bad at all.
EA: I agree that Barath may represent an insurance policy if Ike Opara leaves over his salary demands. I know Vermes has tried to walk back his comments a bit, but I also don’t blame Opara for wanting more money—he turns 30 later this offseason and is running out of chances at a big multi-year contract. So Barath potentially lessens that blow a bit, but I think there is one more possibility to consider, which is that we may see a bit more three-at-the-back soccer from SKC in 2019, with a backline of Opara, Fontas, and Besler, with Borath as the primary center back off the bench. I think that for this to work long-term, though (especially in a CCL year), the team needs another center back, and it’s not clear enough yet at this point if Graham Smith is that guy or not.
CS: I don’t know enough about Barath to really have heavy thoughts one way or the other. He is a right-sided center back, where Opara lines up. He could just be depth but it really makes me think it could be so he can be the primary backup if Opara is traded and Matt Besler and Andreu Fontas become the starters. The kid (though doesn’t he look quite old for a 26-year-old) has a ton of appearances in Hungary and likely is already familiar with his Hungarian National Team teammates Krisztian Nemeth and Daniel Salloi. Not to mention his Hungarian speaking head coach. I like the addition, even if it’s just for depth.
EA: Let’s go from the backline to the frontline. Erik Hurtado, what say y’all?
MK: I was originally okay with this addition, Hurtado is a fine player, not great, not a starter, but he’ll eat up minutes when a starter is out. The price on paper seemed high with two draft picks, one a first round pick, but honestly by the time the draft pick is used the draft will have probably lost more value and hopefully KC is still drafting far enough back that it’s fairly meaningless.
MB: I agree that draft picks have worked out poorly for SKC recently, so this looks like a smart, cap-friendly move to replace Shelton with another hard working center forward. Hurtado looks significantly more goal dangerous than Shelton, but also a step down from Rubio. Kansas City has a much more talented midfield than Vancouver, so there is reason to hope that Hurtado will perform better for Sporting than he did for the Whitecaps.
EA: Yeah, the value of draft picks after the first half of the first round or so has definitely plummeted amid the (beneficial) rise of academy soccer in the US. I think it’s a bit ironic, though, because Hurtado’s impressive pedigree includes being a fifth-overall SuperDraft pick, but he could never quite establish himself in Vancouver. While some of that can surely be chalked up to a lack of midfield support, I also think we need to temper our expectations. Hurtado just turned 28 and pretty much is what he is at this point, which seems to be a reasonable depth option but not a regular starter.
MK: And the context of the Rubio trade needs to be considered when evaluating this move because that made Hurtado arguably Krisztian Nemeth’s primary backup. Hurtado is a fine squad player, but if Vermes’ quotes about the condensed schedule and needing two at each position are to be believed, I don’t love the idea of Hurtado getting as many games as that implies in my head. Maybe I’m overthinking that part, but I’m worried if Hurtado is the second striker all season.
CS: I’m hopeful that Hurtado is a better version of Shelton, minus the height. He seems to play very hard, he’s fast as hell and he is absolutely a better goal scorer, even if his numbers are relatively low. Vancouver primarily played counter-attacking soccer and that is definitely not what Sporting KC does. I’m not holding my breath, but Vermes talked about adding another #9, so maybe that limits Hurtado’s minutes as a starter. Then again, if he’s like Shelton he’ll be the starting coming out of preseason. So you just never know.
Rowe and Rubio
EA: So let’s talk about that Rubio-for-Rowe three-team trade, then. How does this play out for Sporting Kansas City?
MB: Rubio had ten goals and seven assists (counting secondary assists, as MLS does) in just over ten games worth of minutes. He also earned the penalty that led to the series winning goal vs Real Salt Lake. He almost single handedly pulled SKC out of their annual summer slump. He will be missed.
CS: I think my opinion was pretty clear on this when I wrote that story early this week. I won’t beat the dead horse, but I’m very low on this trade. I desperately hope I’m wrong.
EA: I’ll miss Rubio as well; his impact this year is impossible to deny, and his occasional diving antics aside, he seemed like a genuinely good guy both on and off the pitch. But I also think it is clear that Vermes sold high on him, which is peak Vermes.
MB: And I do expect Nemeth to play well in 2019. But I don’t expect him to play as well as Rubio did.
MK: While I also worry about the trade in relation to the forward position, I love the trade as a whole. Rowe is a player that I’ve always liked with New England, and 2018’s down year aside I think he could be a really good addition to KC. Add in the $300,000 in allocation money and this trade to me was a no brainer. Rowe can play multiple positions, giving flexibility on the bench for games, he can play in the middle or out wide, I think he’ll have success here.
MB: Mike, I fail to see how trading away the team’s best striker for a midfielder who isn’t expected to be in the starting lineup in the playoffs improves the team. This feels like Vermes couldn’t keep Rubio in KC and tried to get something out of the situation before he left. I like Kelyn Rowe, but the only way this move works out to SKC’s benefit is if Rowe turns out to be Seth’s replacement at left back. Rowe has played there every so often with New England, but it appears Rowe is more likely to play in the midfield or on the wings.
CS: That is an interesting take, Rowe at left back. I’m concerned that Vermes seems to want very attacking left backs when they already have a very attacking right back in Graham Zusi. Someone has to stay back and play defense, especially if the slower Fontas and Besler are paired together. I agree with Mark that trading a starter (Rubio should be the starter IMO) doesn’t make immediate sense to me. Especially if Rowe is on a one year deal just as Rubio was (which is unclear).
EA: Based on Vermes’s comments that Rowe would fit in best here as a #10 or a #8, I think this is a good move. Felipe Gutierrez and Roger Espinoza both had otherworldly stretches of play last year, but they’ll need to be rested throughout a hectic 2019 campaign, and Wan Kuzain and Gianluca Busio may not be quite ready for that amount of first-team minutes. I’m holding out hope that the #9 Vermes is hinting at arrives after the New Year, because I’m not convinced either that the team is set at that position. But with Rowe in hand, I do think the team’s depth chart looks solid in a spot that has typically been thin in recent history.