The email came Monday: “Sporting KC to make major club announcement Tuesday.” Commence eye roll. Major? Uh huh. Of course, we had seen hints of the re-signing of Major League Soccer free agents-to-be Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza, but, though very important, those would not be a “major” club announcement.
But Sporting Kansas City got this one right. The announcement came that not only were Zusi and Espinoza re-signed, but they, free-agent-to-be Matt Besler, and midfield general Ilie Sanchez had all been re-signed to multi-year contracts.
This news is huge. And the re-signings of Besler, a 10-year SKC vet; Espinoza, a 9-year SKC vet; Ilie, an integral 2-year vet; and Zusi, a 10-year vet; sends several messages.
To the fans, the re-signings say, “We value commitment.” Fans have spent their emotions growing close to these four fan favorites – despite the fact that they are not infallible – through the ups and downs of championships, strong seasons gone wrong the last four years, and individual records set and achievements achieved. Fans have spent their money on these players’ jerseys; no true Sporting Kansas City fan truly wanted to see these players put on another team’s jersey (Espinoza in a Real Salt Lake jersey?).
By committing to these players despite their ages (31, 31, 27, and 32 respectively), Sporting KC is likely guaranteeing that these four (save perhaps Ilie) will retire as Sporting players. The bonds that have developed will not be broken. Valuing commitment is a value in and of itself. Simply said, re-signing these players who have shown commitment and loyalty to the club also rewards the loyalty and commitment of the fans.
To Major League Soccer, the re-signings say, “We aren’t going anywhere” and provide perhaps a sobering reminder. Each of the four is critical to how Sporting Kansas City plays. The loss of any would raise questions about the viability of Sporting’s continued success: A backline without the calm Besler who excels at long balls out of the back? A pressing, possession-based side without the indefatigable and skilled Espinoza and the vision and passing of Ilie? An attack without the continual overlapping and honed skills of Zusi? Keeping these four in the fold assures the assuredness of the team’s spine. Sporting’s style will persist, and they will be a force to be reckoned with. League-wide, the re-signings remind MLS clubs that a steady core of players always yields success. In other words, splashing big-time cash on high-profile foreign talent may be the trend, but it is not necessarily the answer. Perenially being in the conference race to the top and three US Open Cup Championships and one MLS Cup Championship in Besler and Zusi’s time speak to that.
To current and future Sporting KC players, the re-signings say, “This is how to be successful, and we are here to help you succeed.” There is little, if any, doubt that Besler, Espinoza, and Zusi’s names will “paint the wall” in the roll call of Sporting Legends above the championships that are celebrated in the Northwest corner of Children’s Mercy Park. Ilie’s probably too. Their commitment to and love for the club and to and for their teammates points the way. Besler has been the team’s captain for years, sometimes sharing that load with Espinoza (who returned home to Sporting KC after his stint at Wigan Athletic in England). Espinoza has been repeatedly hailed as the glue that holds the side together.
Zusi is a model of consistency, even navigating a switch from midfield attacker to attacking right back to help the side progress. “No other club” is exemplified by these three. And Ilie has been the model for a European – one who was raised in the famed FC Barcelona La Masia youth academy – making good in MLS in a smaller Midwest market and one who has fully bought in. But it is more for the Gianluca Busios, the Jaylin Lindseys, the Wan Kuzain Wan Kumals, the Jahon and Kaveh Rads, the Wilson Harris, the Tyler Freemans, the Sebastian Cruzs, etc. coming up through the Sporting KC Academy. These veterans will be there to continue their exampling and their mentoring. Their impact will have years of payoff for the developing.
Yes, there is recent signee Andreu Fontas (28), or others, who could supplant an aging Besler by the time the captain’s new contract expires. Yes, there is Designated Player Felipe Gutierrez (27) or Kuzain who could supplant an aging Espinoza. Yes, Jaylin Lindsey is likely the right back of the future to supplant Zusi. But now is not the time to move on from these three veterans and Ilie for Sporting Kansas City. Are we as pundits and fans waxing a little too poetically and affectionately for these four? Their history and their character says a stern, “No.”
“These players have consistently performed at a high level and helped the club achieve tremendous success,” Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes said. “Their winning mentality, work ethic, team-first attitude and all of the contributions they make outside of the soccer field in the community are integral to our strong culture, and we are excited to continue our pursuit of all of our goals with them in Kansas City.”
Right. Messages sent.