On Thursday, January 10, Sporting Kansas City’s Academy – led by Academy Director Jon Parry – was given 2018 MLS Academy of the Year honors during Major League Soccer’s 2018 Club Executive Awards Ceremony in Chicago. The honor is a terrific reward for all the Academy has achieved and its model organization and implementation. Yet, it is mostly prologue for Technical Director Peter Vermes’ first team.
When it comes to the number of homegrowns and “now” first-team minutes played by these potential-laden youths, many other MLS teams dominate. Real Salt Lake boasts 13 homegrowns on their first-team roster. Seven other MLS sides have more than the five homegrowns Sporting KC does. And when it comes to teams like Sporting Kansas City who have nurtured young talent while “winning now”, the New York Red Bulls have given 20,267 MLS minutes to their homegrowns, compared to 4,946 in all competitions for Sporting’s.
Beyond established Homegrown Daniel Salloi, the now Sporting KC “kids” are Gianluca Busio, Tyler Freeman, Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal, and Jaylin Lindsey, the four youngest Homegrowns on the first-team roster.
Busio is a 16-year-old, 5’7”, 135lbs midfielder who started two of eight appearances, recording one goal and one assist (243 minutes played) in all competitions last season. He is a productive member of the U.S. U-15 team.
Freeman, signed to the first-team just last October, is a 16-year-old, 5’10”, 150lbs forward. He competed for the U-14, U-16 and U-17 national teams during the last two years, scoring critical goals in strong competitions.
Wan Kuzain is a 20-year-old, 5’10”, 160lbs midfielder who started five of eight appearances and scored one goal and added one assist (480 minutes played) in all competitions last season.
Lindsey is an 18-year-old, 5’8”, 155lbs wide back who started eight of ten appearances, contributing one assist (760 minutes played) in all competitions last season. He has extensive experience with US U-14s, 15s, and 17s.
Sporting gave their kids (save Freeman who was signed in October of last year) important time on the field in 2018 while progressing to the quarterfinals in the Open Cup, topping the Western Conference in the MLS regular season, and hosting the conference championship in the playoffs. However, now that their habits and minds have been honed through much exposure to the ways of the veterans and the nuances of Sporting’s system of play, the time is nearing for their talents to come to the fore. With a February 21 start to the campaign in CONCACAF Champions League play, US Open Cup play, and a 34-game regular season schedule shortened by a few weeks, 2019 could be the season the Sporting Kansas City plays their kids like never before.
On Tuesday of last week, before the first preseason match was played, The Blue Testament asked Vermes if fans can expect the Homegrowns to see more minutes this season in general.
“Our hope and plan is, ‘Yes,’” Vermes stated.
Of course, beyond their talent, their attitude, fitness, and work rate must all be at expected levels if they are to see time during the campaign.
“They are. We have no issues there at all,” Vermes clarified. “All of them are progressing well. We want those guys to play as much as possible; that’s why they are part of the roster.”
Then, Vermes’ response took a bit of an unexpected turn.
“I don’t think any of this stuff is possible if it wasn’t for TAM money,” he said.
Targeted Allocation Money is made available by the league for teams to use in many ways. Clubs can sign Homegrown players to their first MLS contract by using up to $200,000 of their currently available TAM. It is possible that Freeman was signed using such funds. In addition, TAM helps a team fill its roster with players who make significant salaries, and are likely significantly talented and experienced players, like a Johnny Russell for Sporting KC. For Vermes, who insists not only on a talented roster, but on a strong team culture, TAM has been a godsend.
“It’s really hard to bring all those younger players in if you didn’t have a strong foundation within the team across the board,” he revealed. “TAM has helped immensely with that.”
Vermes has stated that he dreams of one day having a Starting 11 of all academy players, and to that end, there are currently 13 players in preseason camp with the first-team in Arizona. To turn those players from prologue to now, Vermes believes it is crucial for seasoned players to be an influence in all ways and manners.
“So now it’s being able to give those younger players that actually have qualities [minutes], but where the other players can help support them when they come into a game or even in training,” he said. “All of that has been a huge benefit to the advancement of signing academy players into our rosters. And, more importantly, giving them opportunities to grow as players on the field.”
MLS is much a selling league that often either develops young players or signs players throughout the world that sometimes use the increase in playing time and exposure that MLS provides as a stepping stone to the bigger leagues (and salaries) of Europe. MLS teams then put those funds right back into their club. In a selling league, playing your kids is a not only satisfying for all the hard work all parties have put in, but it is a payoff that benefits all. And for Vermes and Sporting Kansas City, playing the kids is part of their dream.
Trustworthy pundit Taylor Twellman recently stated that Busio – perhaps the one of the four that has the brightest future – may be on his way to Europe (the route Sporting KC Homegrown player Erik Palmer-Brown took in 2017, one that did not have a financial benefit for Sporting KC), yet, Vermes says that is news to him.
Who knows which one, or if all, of the Sporting KC homegrowns will blossom into a consistent First 11 player for his club. But Sporting’s congested 2019 schedule just might be the time that will tell, much in thanks to the work they have put in and the platform their club has provided them.