To play the style of soccer Peter Vermes wants to play, he needs quality in the middle of the pitch. SKC finished 2nd in MLS in possession with 54.6% of the ball this season. They were also among the league leaders with an 83% pass success. This simply cannot be accomplished without winning battles in the midfield.
Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza, & Felipe Gutierrez are a fantastic combination - one of the best trios in Major League Soccer. Each of them specialized to fill a specific role in the system. But looking ahead to 2019 and beyond, Vermes has questions to answer.
With the recent offseason decisions, just six players remain officially listed as midfielders on the roster. A wave a youth including Wan Kuzain & Gianluca Busio was wonderful for the club, but are they ready? And if they are ready, how long will they be with Sporting KC? Vermes will soon have to address this issue of depth behind Espinoza & Ilie.
Ilie Sanchez – I start with Ilie because you love him the most. If you don’t, you should. The Holding Midfielder is such an unforgiving position to play. It often takes a keen eye to identify his most brilliant moments.
The Spaniard scored four goals this season. The panenka to beat a trash-talking Nick Rimando was something I will never forget. But how many attacks were started because Ilie won a tackle at the other end? How many goals were prevented by his professional fouls (six yellows on the year)? His IQ for the game is exceptional. The instinct and positioning prevent danger before it happens. He’s able to relieve pressure and get the team out of trouble with a single touch of the ball.
Ilie was my personal MVP this season. The guy started 41 matches across all competitions this season! That’s good for a club record (tying Rosell & Sinovic in 13’). It absolutely terrifies me to think about having to play a match without him back there. Thankfully the 28-year-old is under contract through 2021 with an option for 22’.
But the problem is there is no true backup for him right now. Evans’ option was declined and Wan Kuzain is still very green. A quality replacement is needed to give Ilie’s legs a rest once in a blue moon.
Roger Espinoza – I’m not entirely sure why, but this one will be polarizing. The range in opinions about this man covers everything under the sun. Roger could be a Sporting Legend or he could be absolute trash depending on who you talk to.
I understand him to be an phenomenal player who is perfect for this squad. There needs to be a Roger Cam at all times so we can appreciate the work he puts in. The Honduran constantly runs from tackle to tackle, hurling his body into collisions. He wins possession, he keeps possession, and he contributes to the score-sheet as well. Espinoza had three goals and nine assists (both career highs) in 32 regular season matches, but his main duties lie elsewhere.
A big part of his value to Peter Vermes this year was his knowledge of the system. Roger worked very well with Graham Zusi and the two were very fluid, adding a new dynamic to mess with defenses. He could be seen at right-back for extended periods covering the space Zusi left to push forward. But he could also be found way up the pitch ruthlessly running down every ball.
He’s an absolute madman. He’s a villain around the league, but on a personal level it doesn’t take long to see how genuine and friendly Espinoza really is. We get to enjoy his hijinks for couple more years as his contract is good through the 2020 season.
Felipe Gutierrez – The most expensive player on the roster (and in Sporting KC history) had a mixed first season. Through five games he looked like he was going to be in contention for the league MVP. But a sports hernia and subsequent surgery would put a damper on things. He was out for a huge chunk of the season and it took him even longer to round back into form.
At his best, Gutierrez might look too good for MLS. But there were times this year you could forget he was even on the field. An attacking midfielder cannot disappear during matches.
I do believe he justified his price tag in his first season. Had he been able to keep his early season form rolling, there is no telling what this team could have accomplished. I’m very excited to see what he can do in his sophomore year in KC. Felipe is under contract through 2020 with an option for 21’.
Yohan Croizet – The Curious Case of Croizet. His first season was one wild ride! Is he terrible.. or is he the best player in the league? Maybe both?
Remember when it looked like he literally couldn’t complete a pass? Croizet progressed so much throughout the season and became a very important part of the team. He ended up playing all areas of the field, but early on was tasked with playing Attacking Midfielder when Gutierrez went down.
That was back when he was still leaving most fans with their faces in their palms, but looking ahead to next year Yohan should be a solid replacement in the midfield. His main value will lie in his versatility. He showed us flashes of brilliance this year and perhaps with a full season under his belt, Croizet will take his game to another level in 2019. He’s under contract through 2020 with an option for 21’.
Gianluca Busio – He’s the face (and hair) of the future for Sporting KC. Busio became the youngest player in club history to play in a competitive match at 16 years and 61 days old. In 153 minutes he notched his first goal and his first assist.
The SKC Homegrown player is still finding his game, but he looks quite formidable as an Attacking Midfielder. If it wasn’t for the baby face, you’d never know he was so young. He fits right in on an MLS field. He’s calm, collected, and creative. Busio is a very exciting player and certainly gaining interest overseas. He is under club control for through the 2022 season, but that could change quickly.
He will struggle again next year to find first team minutes behind Gutierrez and Croizet, so more time with the Swope Park Rangers may be necessary. It’d be nice to see another player brought in to keep these youngsters competing for a spot everyday.
Wan Kuzain Wan Kumal – The 20-year-old made his first team debut and opened his scoring account in 2018. He is yet another Homegrown player the club is very excited about. But talk to someone from Malaysia and they’ll probably tell you he’s the next Messi.
Kuzain has so much raw talent and it was on display this year. He’s got great awareness and isn’t afraid of anything. He calls for the ball in tight spaces and will make confident, daring passes. But he too will probably see plenty of time with SPR next season. Like Busio, Kuzain is too talented to sit on the bench. His contract ends 2020 but Sporting have options for 21’ & 22’.
Brad Evans – Hindsight is 20/20, right? Evans didn’t play a single minute and was only able to make the bench a handful of times. He was perpetually on the injury report for various reasons, the main one being “old” (probably). I’m sure his veteran presence in the locker room provided quit a bit of value this year and he would have been nice to have in a desperate situation.
But his option for next year was declined and Evans is due to become a free agent on December 11th.
Cristian Lobato – Is he a midfielder? Or a forward? Or what about a defender? Lobato was officially listed as a midfielder but played a little of everything in his time for SKC.
Believe it or not, he actually scored two goals this season over the course of 327 minutes. He was plagued with injuries all season long and didn’t make an appearance after June 3. His option was declined and he is eligible for the MLS Waiver Draft.
Stay: Ilie, Espinoza, Gutierrez, Busio, Kuzain, Croizet
Go: Evans, Lobato
While the starting three may have been a strength for Vermes this season, he has plenty to think about over the next year. Roger will turn 33 next season and you can’t count on Ilie to play every single match again. There needs to be another body in the mix.
Busio & Kuzain give us a lot of hope for the future and they may even be ready right now. But this club promises trophies each year. That will be tough if they need to lean on the youngsters. Plus, they could potentially be sent to Europe at any time. With just six players on the midfield roster right now, some reinforcements/competition are most likely on the way.