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Could Sporting KC Find a Striker Within MLS?

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A look at the players most likely to be traded before the window closes

2013 MLS Cup - Real Salt Lake v Sporting Kansas City Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

As Sporting Kansas City slides from first to fifth in the Western Conference standings, there have been as yet no summer signings to spark a Seattle style playoff surge. The major culprit in this slump has been a staggeringly suspect defense, even for a team dealing with injuries to several first choice defenders.

Yet despite conceding 16 goals in the last seven games, there are reasons to believe the defense will recover. The core defense from last year is still there. Conceding so many goals can partly be chalked up to bad luck: many of the goals conceded have come via long range strikes from outside the penalty area. Those type of shots have inherently greater variance, leading to games where many such shots produce no goals (think the LA Galaxy rifling shot after shot at Tim Melia). Sometimes several such shots find the net in a single game, as happened when KC played the New York Red Bulls. Per Five Thirty-Eight’s models, Sporting have conceded these 16 goals off of only 9.9 expected goals against when using the shot-based model, and only 5.9 expected goals in the non-shot based model.

The mistakes from Ike Opara are alarming and explain a decent chunk of the underperformance by themselves, but again there is justified hope that he will find his form again.

Thus, while defense is undeniably a cause for concern, there are excellent historical and statistical reasons to believe that SKC’s goals allowed will be one or none in many upcoming games. The question then is whether or not Sporting’s offense will get the job done on the other end of the field. During these last seven games they have slightly underperformed their xG, scoring 10 goals from 11 expected goals worth of shots, but these numbers are not so far off to be disconcerting, especially considering they come from a small sample.

More disturbingly, Johnny Russell joined Khiry Shelton on the injury list and further reduced the number of fit forwards available for selection. Reinforcing the forward line should therefore considered a top priority, and the center forward position is by far the thinnest. Although Rubio has two assists in his three starts at the position, he is the only healthy player who is naturally a striker and his numbers from last year were decent but nothing special. Thus despite the defensive downturn, there is an excellent case to be made that a natural center forward should be Sporting’s top priority, especially if the rumored deal to sign versatile Spanish defender Andreu Fontas has been reached.

A week ago the international striker scene was reviewed, and with very little time remaining before the summer transfer window closes on the eighth of August, a last minute deal within the league seems more likely than a big splash overseas. Presumably every player without a no-trade clause has his price, but given that Sporting KC in general and Vermes in particular loathes overpaying, it is safe to say that relatively few forwards in the league could conceivably still be acquired.

Several strikers were rumored to have been shopped around the league at various times this year, including Ignacio Piatti, Christian Ramirez, and everyone’s former favorite Hungarian winger Krisztian Nemeth. Although not known to be on the trading block, C. J. Sapong has had a very underwhelming season at Philadelphia [Editor: it is reported they are listening to offers] and may be getting upstaged by Cory Burke. It is unlikely that the Philadelphia Union would want to trade a regular starter when its seems that they might actually be good for a change, but you never know how Philly will choose to shoot themselves in the foot, so anything is possible. Here is a table of the stats used for this story.

17/18 Striker Target Stats

Player Team Season Minutes SPG OT% NPG/90 NPxG/90 KP/90 A/90 xA/90 xB/90 Pass % xPass % Tackles + interceptions/90 Aerials won/90
Player Team Season Minutes SPG OT% NPG/90 NPxG/90 KP/90 A/90 xA/90 xB/90 Pass % xPass % Tackles + interceptions/90 Aerials won/90
Christian Ramirez Minnesota United 2018 1384 2.46 37 0.49 0.39 0.63 0.14 0.07 0.2 71 81.7 0.2 0.9
Christian Ramirez Minnesota United 2017 2392 2.2 54 0.53 0.39 0.49 0.11 0.05 0.04 71 82.5 0.4 0.4
C. J. Sapong Philadelphia Union 2018 1403 2.42 36 0.2 0.49 1.08 0.07 0.13 0.08 69.7 76.2 0.9 3.7
C. J. Sapong Philadelphia Union 2017 2794 2.07 47 0.42 0.4 0.97 0.13 0.1 0.06 64.4 73.7 0.9 3.1
Krisztian Nemeth New England Revolution 2018 467 1.47 30 0 0.14 1 0.37 0.13 0.14 75.7 76.2 0.6 0.4
Krisztian Nemeth New England Revolution 2017 177 5 25 0.5 0.52 1.84 0.5 0.2 0 67.6 81.1 0.3 0
Ignacio Piatti Montreal Impact 2018 1875 2.63 29 0.41 0.26 1.92 0.41 0.3 0.13 77 80.1 1.5 0.2
Ignacio Piatti Montreal Impact 2017 2370 2.64 46 0.5 0.22 1.76 0.19 0.15 0.09 74.5 77.8 2.3 0.1

Christian Ramirez has been a consistent goal scorer for Minnesota both this season and last, averaging just above the benchmark 0.5 goals per game. His underlying numbers are significantly lower at only 0.39xG/90, almost identical to Rubio’s 2017 0.38xG/90. Unlike Rubio, however, Ramirez’s pass completion rate of only 71.0% is a red flag for a possession oriented team like SKC, although part of that may be attributed to Minnesota’s style favoring direct play. (It is worth noting that Ramirez has over performed his expected assists as well, with 0.12A/90 v against 0.06xA/90.) Ramirez is on a salary cap friendly $641K guaranteed compensation for 2018, with his contract set to expire at the end of the season.

Ignacio Piatti commands a princely $4.7 million a year in guaranteed compensation, though his contract only lasts till the summer of 2019. Though he normally lines up on the left wing, he has played in the middle a few times for Montreal this year and no matter exactly where he is on the field he always look’s like their best player.

Remi Garde reportedly looked at offers for Piatti earlier this year, and while Piatti may be 33 years old he continues to score goals and create chances at a true all-star rate. 0.41 non-penalty goals a game with an identical assist rate puts Piatti on a very special level, and he has the best passing of any the four players on this list. If Montreal abandon hope of reaching the playoffs this year, they may look to save themselves paying his high wages for another year, and Piatti makes a good deal of sense for a team looking to make a serious playoff run and compete in the CONCACAF champions’ league next year.

C. J. Sapong needs little introduction, and has been suggested several times on this site as a potential Sporting striker. He certainly meets the hustle requirement, and although he has underperformed his xG numbers this season at Shelton levels, this has not typically been the case for him over the years. Also like Shelton, his passing isn’t ideal, but if SKC really wants a like-for-like replacement up top, Sapong is the obvious choice: if Philadelphia can be convinced to part with him for less than a Dwyer’s ransom.

Krisztian Nemeth has been covered extensively on this site, and as long as he plays for a team not named Sporting Kansas City he will assuredly continue to stir up debate. He has not had a good year with the New England Revolution so far, failing to score a goal in the mere 467 minutes he managed to get on the field. He still has as many assists on the season as Khiry (two) but his overall xG+xA/90 numbers have dropped to Shelton-like 0.27. Given that he has still played only about seven games worth of minutes with New England, a team which changed its style shortly after he was signed, there is a case to be made that these numbers do not reflect his full potential.

When you couple those numbers with his $1.1 million salary, the 200K TAM + 200K GAM the Revolution paid for him seems slightly high. (What the going market value of a forward being traded within MLS is a question I tried to answer, and failed miserably. Too few trades with too many variables and several types of currency coupled with an abysmally small sample size made me suspicious even of the few reasonable numbers I extracted from them, so anyone interested in conjecturing how much any of these players would/should cost SKC can look at this page of the sheet to see what somewhat similar players have been traded for recently.) I will note that Nemeth’s contract expires at the end of the year, after which it could likely be renegotiated down to a more reasonable level, and that SKC have more than enough cap space to sign two high TAM level players this window.

It is entirely possible that Sporting will recover their form both offensively and defensively and finish the season strong, making a deep run in the playoffs. Indeed, that could happen even without Sporting playing well. Soccer is a crazy sport and stranger things have happened: a team in England once outshot their opponents 49 to zero and still lost by an own goal to none. But while much in the sport is uncertain, it is a fact that SKC have more than sufficient resources to sign players of known quality, and that the probability of attaining a home playoff game without such a signing is distinctly lower in the absence of such a signing. We will soon see how highly Vermes values such probabilistic improvement.