Ever since Robb Heineman announced that Sporting KC would invest in a new #9, the Blue Hell has awaited the coming of a goal scoring center forward. Several months later #SportingKCStrikerWatch is still alive and has new legs following speculation that Bobby Wood could come to MLS and the news that Portuguese striker Tomane wants to move to MLS.
But how well would they fit Sporting's style? And are there better options available? To answer these questions, Wood and Talmane must be compared to the broader pool of European and South American strikers from which SKC could find a #9. A truly comprehensive search is not possible without access to far more data than is available, but since when is that a good reason for not trying? First, we need to clarify what we are looking for. A center forward in a Peter Vermes 4-3-3 will need to be willing to put in a solid shift defensively, to hold onto and distribute the ball while under pressure, create chances for the wingers and midfielders, in addition to the ever important task of scoring goals.
To estimate how good a player is in each category, I will look at a number of statistical measures. Goals per ninety will be included in the stat list, but where possible expected goals (xG) will be used instead. (Anyone unfamiliar with expected goals is encouraged to read the explanation on AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com) Similarly expected assists (xA) and expected buildup (xB) numbers will be used when possible to get a better view of a player's chance creation skills. Unfortunately, I could only find these advanced statistics available for the top 5 European leagues plus the Russian Premier League. (If anyone knows where to find these stats for more leagues, please let me know in the comments.) Elsewhere key passes per game and assists per game can be used as substitute measures, but they are significantly less useful. Pass completion percentages don't always tell you as much about the skill of the passer as it does the style of play the team employs, but it is still a valuable measure to consider. Sadly, many South American and eastern European leagues do not have publicly available passing numbers, so those players come listed with significant question marks. Defensive work rate can be approximated by looking at open play defensive actions undertaken per game, so tackles and interceptions per game are also included.
Of course, there is no point in discovering that Luis Suarez would be a great fit for SKC if there is no chance of Sporting actually signing him. Therefore only players with a transfermarkt.com valuation less than or equal to five million are listed. Furthermore, only players who have spent a significant amount of time in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, or in a very few cases a 4-1-4-1 or 3-4-3, were considered, since players from dual forward formations are less likely to be able to maintain their production after moving to the single striker setup Sporting uses. Players from possession oriented teams were also given extra consideration, while those from hard core bunker and counter teams were ruled out. Now with all of the preliminaries out of the way, let's take a look at the strikers.
The first thing that jumps out is that Bobby Wood does not look particularly good. Even going back to the previous season, where he was far more successful, his stats are still underwhelming: 0.38 goals + assists per game with only 0.25 xG per game. The numbers do not look like those of a high dollar DP, although it is fair to point out these numbers should go up when moving from the Bundesliga to MLS. And to be fair, Bobby did very well for Union Berlin in the second division, which is probably fairly close to MLS. The other rumored striker, Tomane, plays in Portugal, so we don't have xG stats for him. His 0.54 G+A/90 is much better than Bobby's, but those numbers come with a warning label. Tomane only scored 0.25 goals per game, with the rest of his production coming from assists. While 0.29 A/90 looks very good, it is quite an outlier for a striker and probably shouldn't be trusted too far. Beyond raw production, his 58.5% pass completion rate is abysmal and wouldn't fit the SKC style at all. So if Bobby Wood looks over rated and Tomane is also a bit of a risk, and a bad fit to boot, who would fit in with Sporting?
Since there are distinct groups of strikers coming from very different backgrounds, it is best to examine them by lot. Of course are there are too many to go into full detail with all of them, so only the most promising ones are highlighted here. In the first group, you have players from the big 5 European leagues: France, Germany, Italy, Spain and England. Well, actually no EPL players make the list because they are all so overpriced. Like Bobby Wood, the players from these leagues typically come with sub optimal production, but would be expected to improved upon moving to a much easier league. In the second group, you have players coming from leagues just a step below the top, most of which have statistics readily available: Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, Brazil and Argentina. The third group is a bit of a gamble as the leagues are weaker, and often very unbalanced, so players' strike rates might decrease upon moving to MLS. These leagues also have very little available in the way of statistics so it is harder to measure fit. I did not want to exclude this group from the list as the best bargains are probably to be found here, but without having better statistics or a good amount of video to watch, it is much harder to gauge these players so take them with a grain of salt.
Group One: The Big Five
Stephané Bahoken, playing for Strasbourg in France's Ligue 1, has very high xB and passing numbers for a striker at 0.21 per game and 76.6% respectively. He has a healthy 0.12 xA per game, and a strong defensive contribution. The downside is that his 0.5 goals per game is over-performing his 0.32 xG per game. Additionally, while he has played several games in a 4-2-3-1 this season, Strasbourg has shifted to 4-4-2 formations recently, so some adaptation may be required. However, he will be out of contract at the close of the French season, so he should be easier to sign.
Sergio Araujo is probably the closest to a perfect fit for SKC that can be found at this price point, as he has superb passing numbers at 79.3%, a good strike rate in the Greek league at 0.47 goals per game, and in the previous season his time with Las Palmas saw him put up 0.51 xG+xA/90 with production to match. He has a very high defensive contribution with 1.2 tackles + interceptions per game in Spain and 1.5 in Greece. He even spent a year at Barca B with Ilie and Cristian Lobato. The main issue with trying to sign Sergio is that he is currently on loan from Las Palmas to AEK Athens, who have an option to purchase his contract. Las Palmas, however, has a 98% chance of getting relegated per FiveThirtyEight, so they should be open to offers if AEK does not bite.
Las Palmas is the source of another potential signing, as Jonathan Calleri will be out of contract in June, and though his numbers don't look as good as Sergio Araujo's they are still better than Bobby Wood's. Only 0.25 xG/90 after excluding penalties isn't great, but Spanish defenses are among the hardest to crack in the world so they should go up significantly if Calleri moves to MLS. His passing is sub par with only 65.8% completed, but that too can probably improve.
Group Two: High Quality Feeder Leagues
In the other Iberian league, Tomane's Liga NOS stats are put to shame by Brazilian striker Fabricio. Scoring 0.53 goals per game this season in the Portuguese league, and adding 0.17 assists per game, Fabricio has had a very good season with Portimonenese. His 66.5% passing rate is on the low end, but far better than Tomane's. His defensive contribution is adequate at 0.8 tackles + interceptions per game, which also compares favorably with Tomane, though SKC would likely like a bit more.
In the German second division, Mikael Ishak has been putting up numbers for FC Nürnberg comparable to and in some cases better than Bobby Wood did in has last season in the 2. Bundesliga with Union Berlin. Scoring 0.65 G/90 and adding 0.16/A/90 is good by itself, but he also has great passing numbers at 72.8% completed and he puts in a solid 0.9 tackles + interceptions per game. Nürnberg have a 82% chance to get promoted, per 538, but if they don't Ishak could be available.
Besides having one of the best names, Ricky van Wolfswinkel has put up great statistics this year with FC Basel in Switzerland, and before that with Dutch side Vitesse. Note that his statistics are cobbled together from several sources and seasons as the Swiss Super League does not offer much, so while the 0.59 G/90 and 0.08A/90 stats come from the current season with Basel, the passing (75%), key pass (1.2), aerial duels won (1.8), and tackles + interceptions per game (1.3) all come from the previous season with Vitesse. Additionally, xG stats were available for 14-15 when Ricky was with Real Betis, so I threw them in as well. While not as good, they did show good xB numbers, so stylistically Ricky looks like a great fit – if they can afford him. The downside with him is that he is on the older side, at 29. I'd also note that he has lost his starting spot to the 20-year old Oberlin, on loan from RB Salzburg, so if Basel exercise their option to purchase Oberlin, Ricky should be expendable.
In Belgium there are a number of intriguing players. Isaac Thelin would be a long shot to acquire as he is a current Swedish international, but then again so are Svensson and Tinnerholm. After a failed spell in France with Bordeaux, he was repeatedly loaned to and eventually acquired by Anderlecht, but was then promptly loaned out for the season to Waasland-Beveren. There he put up a very respectable 0.65 G/90, with 0.12 A/90 to go with it.
Rangelo Janga put up fantastic numbers is Slovakia before signing with KAA Gent this winter, where he has continued to impress. His million-Euro valuation is likely far too low, but Sporting has said they are willing to go up to four million, so I figured I'd include him. 0.96 G/90 just about says it all for the Curacao international, but 0.21 A/90 doesn't hurt either.
Turning to South America, Juan Ferney Otero has played limited but high quality minutes with Estudiantes of Argentina. 0.56 goals per game and 0.18 assists per game are both great for a striker, and Juan has the added bonus of having experience playing on the right wing should SKC have another encounter with the dreaded winger depth crisis. The 70.7% pass completion and 1.1 open play defensive actions per game suggest a good fit with Sporting's style. And at only 22 years of age, he would qualify as a young DP for his first year. The downside is that, while he has played in a 4-3-3, Estudiantes also use two-striker formations, so some adaption may be required. Also, because he only played 1060 minutes this season there is a small sample size warning attached to his statistics.
In Brazil, there are several players who could fit in well in KC. André, a former attacking midfielder, has switched to playing striker and has scored 0.47 G/90 while maintaining a very impressive 80% pass completion rate. He's under contract for the rest of the year, since Brazil also uses a fall to spring schedule, but Gremio is one of the wealthier, deeper teams in Brazil so they might be amenable to selling him in the summer.
Henrique Dourado has been scoring goals very consistently in Brazil, and also briefly in Portugal. Last year he scored 0.58 goals per game for Fluminenese, prompting Flamengo to purchase him for about $3.5M this winter. If SKC fancies high spending, Henrique would fit a possession oriented style play well as he completes 74.3% of his passes, though he might need to work a bit harder on defense.
On a smaller budget, Edigar Junio has not scored as consistently but boasts an excellent 77.9% pass completion rate and a 0.56 G/90 strike rate with Bahia last season. On the other hand, he is on the shorter side at just under five foot nine, and consequently is not as good in the air with only 0.7 aerial duels won per game on average.
Group Three: High Risk, High Reward
Nemanja Nikolic came from a good showing with the Polish club Legia Warsaw and promptly won the golden boot in MLS. Two players from Poland could fit SKC: Jaroslaw Niezgoda, also from Legia Warsaw, and Christian Gytkjaer, from Lech Poznan. Both have been averaging about 0.75 G+A/90 this season. Just to the south in the Czech Republic, Michael Kremnecik has scored 0.74 goals per game with Victoria Plzen, and added an assist every third game to boot.
In Croatia, Mario Gravanovic has scored two goals every three games with Dinamo Zagreb, and added an assist every fourth game as well. Said Ahmed Said has scored 0.54 goals a game to go with a spectacular 0.48 assists per game. Heber has also put up excellent numbers for Rijeka, but those primarily came when playing on the left wing. He used to play center forward, but was less effective there while in Croatia. He's still included because he could plausibly be converted back to a striker.
If Sporting wants more height on the team, Paul Onuacha is the tallest of the lot at a Zlatan-esque six foot seven. Soccer statistics nerds will likely recognize his team, FC Midjylland of Denmark, as the team raised to the top of the Superliga from the lower divisions by the owner of a data analytics firm. Paul's production is excellent, at 0.74 G/90 and 0.24 A/90.
Young South Americans are all the rage in MLS right now, and at only 21 years of age Michael Estrada is already putting up great numbers in the Columbian league. Last season he averaged 0.63 goals and an incredible 0.44 assists per game. His passing percentage and defensive numbers are unavailable, but since he has already earned caps with the Ecuadoran national team it is unlikely they would be deal breakers.
Of course there are many, many more players out there which got overlooked, and undoubtedly some of the players on the list would not take well to KC. But taken together, they give a good picture of the options out there besides Wood and Tomane, and on the whole I think that Sporting can do better. Let me know what you think in the comments, and if there are any particular strikers you think SKC should sign.