Defense has always been a staple of Peter Vermes’ coached teams during his tenure as head coach of Sporting Kansas City, which changed slightly in 2018 as Kansas City pushed forward more and set a club record for goals scored in a season. At the other end of the field, KC leaked goals and led to a number of questions during the season about the leaky defense and how maybe the age of the backline is catching up with them. While it’s true that Kansas City did allow 11 more goals in 2018 (40) verse 2017 (29), Sporting still finished the season with the third fewest goals conceded in MLS this past season behind New York (33) and Seattle (37).
That said, Sporting’s back line is starting to get old, three of the four starters in the playoffs this year, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Seth Sinovic are over the age of 30 and will all be 32 when Sporting takes the field against Deportivo Toluca in late February. The fourth member, Ike Opara will be 30 by the start of the season as well, so age could certainly become a factor for the back line in 2019.
With that in mind, after looking at the goalkeepers yesterday, today we analyze the defense for the 2018 season.
Matt Besler - The club captain had a quietly solid season on KC’s back line and really stepped things up in terms of leadership on the field. His positioning has always been his best asset as a defender and that was apparent again this year with his ability to break up plays and stop attacks. He was able to control the defense, especially when Opara had some form issues early in the season. While he turns 32 this offseason, that’s not too old for a center back, and he’s still the number one center back on the roster for KC.
Ike Opara - Besler’s center back partner struggled a bit in 2018 after being Defender of the Year in 2017. He still managed to set a career high for games played and started, minutes played, and tied a career high with three goals for Sporting. He seems to have shaken the injury issues that have plagued over much of his career as he’s played 86 league games over the past three seasons. As of now he and Besler are still the starters for the team heading into 2019.
Seth Sinovic – The man who can’t be replaced, much has been written about Sinovic’s continual rise from being replaced to being the number one left back over the course of a season along with Sporting’s record and goals against average when he’s in the lineup and when he’s not. This year it was Cristian Lobato and Jimmy Medranda who were penciled in to replace Sinovic, with Jaylin Lindsey also getting time at left back. But as the season wore on it was again Sinovic that was in there game after game for Vermes. Sinovic turns 32 in January and signed a new one year contract last week. It may be time in 2019 to really find a full time replacement for Sinovic, whether it is someone new or someone on the roster currently.
Graham Zusi - Played all but one game across all competitions for KC in 2018, a career high for him in games played, started, and minutes played, the question for Zusi is the same as it is for Sinovic, how long can he continue to play at the high level he’s played at. Converting from a midfielder/winger to a right back really couldn’t have gone better for Zusi, he was many people’s trendy pick for Defender of the Year and he continues to be a threat on the offensive side of the ball as well. Zusi though is already 32 and turns 33 in August next year, but unlike Sinovic where KC has tried a number of different options, Zusi’s replacement seems clear, Homegrown player, Jaylin Lindsey. In 2019 it may be time to start to transition Lindsey more into that spot, but when it comes down to it, Zusi is going to be the starter again in 2019.
With KC’s starters out of the way here’s a look at the rest of KC’s defense.
Emiliano Amor - Released early from his loan back in July, Amor made just a handful of appearances before his release. He appeared slow at times on the field and was part of KC’s Open Cup exit to Houston where Vermes had said some of the players in that game would find themselves away from the team.
Amer Didic - One of three players on this list who didn’t have their option picked up, Didic made his first appearance for the club since 2016 in their US Open Cup win over Real Salt Lake. Didic, as he did most of last year, spent a lot of time with the Swope Park Rangers, the club he broke into Sporting with. He’s spent one international camp with Canada and right now would seem to be the perfect signing for a team in the Canadian Premier League for their first season.
Andreu Fontas - Sporting’s mid-season signing to replace the departing Amor, Fontas only played in two games for Kansas City. Given his salary is just under $1 million according to the MLS Players Union salaries, I’d expect Fontas to get more time in 2019, and with three competitions for KC next year, there will be plenty of opportunities for him to get time along with Besler and Opara.
Jaylin Lindsey - Sporting’s Homegrown defender spent the time he was on the field playing a bit out of position as a left back instead of his preferred right side. At times he struggled with the position and crossing with his weaker foot, but he also looked more than capable of holding his own out there. With Zusi’s age and three competitions in 2019, hopefully Lindsey will get more time on the field.
Cristian Lobato - Sporting’s opening day starter at left back had a rough season, playing in just seven league games and starting just two after the opening day loss to New York City FC. He was one of the left back platoon that tried to replace Sinovic over the course of the season. His season was cut short with an injury, and like Didic didn’t have his option picked up.
Jimmy Medranda - The third member of the platoon of left backs that played there beside Sinovic, Medranda is seen by many as the long term replacement for Sinovic at left back. Though, just as many people see his future with the team further up the field in the midfield. Medranda offers a little less defensive support than Sinovic, but his ability to get forward offered Kansas City something similar to what Zusi does on the right side in his ability to get into the attack. Medranda’s season ended with a knee injury that will force him to miss at least the first two months of the season, probably longer as he gets up to match fitness, so Sporting will be forced to move on without him at least in the early part of 2019.
Graham Smith - The other center back in Kansas City’s US Open Cup exit to the Houston Dynamo, Smith didn’t make an appearance for Sporting after that game. He, like Didic spent the majority of the season with Swope Park, especially after the arrival of Fontas to be the team’s third center back and defensive sub on the bench. Smith had a solid season for Swope, helping anchor their back line. He’ll be back with the club for the 2019 season after having his option picked up, but will likely be in a similar position to Didic with Besler, Opara, and Fontas on the roster.
Colton Storm - Sporting KC’s first round SuperDraft pick in 2017, Storm never made a first team appearance for the club in any competition. Storm made the bench a handful of times but mainly spent his time with the Rangers. He spent most of his time in Kansas City on loan to the Rangers over the past two seasons playing over 50 games for the club in league play and the playoffs. I’m unsure that he’ll get another shot in MLS immediately; he may end up in USL next season if he decides to continue playing.
KC has departed with four players from the above list, one in season and three now that the season is over. Baring a trade somewhere this offseason I don’t see any more departures from the remaining eight players on the roster. The question of the offseason for the defense will be the aging starting lineup in 2019 and rotating the squad a little bit so that Sporting doesn’t fall back into the habit of repeating their late season collapses of 2014-2017.
One other question for Vermes in the offseason is does he try to find yet another left back to compete with Sinovic in preseason, especially with Medranda set to miss the start of the season. Or does he go in with Lindsey as the primary back up for both outside back positions to start the season? The starters will likely look the same as they ended the season with Fontas getting more time on a rotational basis. Medranda will come back in April or May, hopefully at the same level he was at.
Right now Sporting likely doesn’t need much in the way of impact additions on the backline, unless your answer to the above question about Vermes bringing in someone to replace Sinovic (again) is yes. If it’s no, then you’re heading into the 2019 season with Sinovic as your starter at the left back position until Medranda comes back from his knee surgery and can compete with him for the job.
If the team is okay with that, they may look for someone who can be further depth on the left side to allow Lindsey to focus on the right side until Medranda is back. It’d also provide depth behind Sinovic if Vermes decides to move Medranda into the midfield or wing where he also spent time in 2018. Another option for an offseason addition would be a fifth center back for Sporting. This year they carried five center backs at any one time, as such they could loan two to Swope Park and still have two to start games and one to be available on the bench.
Stay: Besler, Fontas, Lindsey, Medranda, Opara, Sinovic, Smith, Zusi
Go: Didic, Lobato, Storm (Amor*)
Swope Park Call Ups?
Really there’s no one on Swope Park in the defensive positions that could be signed. Three of the starting positions on the back line were regularly taken by players loaned from Sporting (Didic, Smith, and Storm). Of some of the other defensive players, Parker Maher was on Sporting’s roster for a US Open Cup game in 2017, but had his option declined by the club. Dakota Barnathan played in just 10 games for Swope in 2018 after ending 2017 as a starter. Justin Bilyeu may be the only potential option on the Rangers roster currently, he just signed a new deal with the club for 2018, but at 24, his window for making an MLS team may be closing. So at this point there’s really no one on the Rangers roster who looks set to make the jump to the first team.