In a wide-ranging interview with owner Mike Illig, the Kansas City Star’s Sam McDowell pulled tons of great information from Cliff’s son. His story is worth a read in it’s own right, but let’s try to pull apart of the meaning of some of these quotes and dig a little deeper.
First, the headliner.
About that “Nixed” Striker
“In the summer of 2018, Vermes identified a striker who would have commanded a transfer fee surpassing any previously paid by Sporting Kansas City. [Mike] Illig admits he nixed the deal, pointing to the club’s pace at the time toward a franchise goal-scoring record. ‘This seems to be working,’ he said then, when Sporting occupied first place in the West.”
Think back to the summer of 2018. The team had Khiry Shelton and Diego Rubio as the primary strikers. They would go on to add Krisztian Nemeth in a trade with the New England Revolution. Now Rubio and Shelton are gone. Nemeth looks to be heading out the door. It’s hard to imagine how different the team could have been. But that wasn’t the only failed move.
Sporting were on the Verge of Adding a Premier League Forward
Fast forward to 2019.
“Three months ago, Sporting KC believed it had finalized a transfer for a Premier League forward — agreed to a contract with with the player. Closed on terms for a transfer fee with the selling club. At the eleventh hour, a team in another league swooped in. ‘Going to bed that night, I thought it was a done deal,’ Illig said.”
With scoring (and defense and basically everything) being an issue this season, at least SKC were trying to make something happen. They apparently had overcome the ‘players not wanting to play in Kansas’ issue only to have a player snatched from their grasp. It’s not much consolation, but at least all parties seem willing to spend (after apparently not spending in 2018 in the middle of #StikerSearch).
“Sporting KC has spent $4 million [in transfer fees].”
$4 million ever. Like over the leagues 20+ seasons. Back to that ‘nixed’ striker above from 2018. The fee was higher than any ever paid by the club (which is a low bar). But in the past, President and CEO Jake Reid has said if a potential target is “a ten-million-dollar guy, we will spend it.” Who knows what this player’s fee would have been but Sporting did not “spend it.”
The fact that they openly admitted that has to earn some credit, but a portion of the fan base will be up in arms. And honestly, who can blame them? As McDowell points out, LAFC and Atlanta United have already spent north of $30 million in transfer fees and they’ve only been in the league two and three years respectively. Inter Miami, who don’t join until 2020, have reportedly dropped $26 million in fees and they’ve yet to play a game. SKC have some catching up to do. And they are willing to do it in different ways based on however it works out best.
“The front office is willing to acquire a player interested in becoming an MLS lifer. But it would also welcome younger talent, in a buy-and-sell mode.”
Illig Now Seems Willing to Spend
“... now it makes sense to go invest in higher-level designated players,” Illig stated. “Now” being the key word. Not in 2018, when the team was winning on a budget. But the team will still try to be smart about it.
“Yes, we’re willing to spend.”
Let’s get it straight from Illig’s mouth.
“It’s a level we have not played in — but it doesn’t scare us,” Illig said in reference to spending big. “We’re not going to go make stupid decisions and pay our way out of it. We’re going to be smart about it. But I don’t think it’s a question of whether we’re willing [to spend]. I’m telling you: Yes, we’re willing.”
These are both lines we’ve heard before. Peter Vermes talks about not spending money just to spend money. And both he and ownership have stated a willingness to spend in the past. It appears to me that Vermes protected ownership by not bringing up these failed deals. And would you expect anything else? If you gave PV nothing, he’d probably still think he could win (and maybe he could).
At this point, it comes down to hoping that a player is available during the offseason. That could be easier said than done since the last two failed deals reportedly happened in the summer (when many other teams around the world are in their offseason).
“We need a number 9.”
And if there was any question about the position Illig was mostly referring to the most, it’s striker.
“We need a No. 9. We need a clinical finisher that we didn’t have this year,” Illig said. “It’s not easy (to get those deals done). But we are putting all of our efforts into going to try to do it.”
#StrikerSearch has technically been going on for about two years. Apparently it was closer to completion than anyone knew. As for this writer’s opinion, let’s just hope it’s not, as many people have joked, ‘Sporting KC signing a Bundesliga striker.’ The joke being that Khiry Shelton is technically in the Bundesliga even if he has all of 31 minutes in the top tier of Germany.
It’s Not Only about Getting a Striker
According to the Star, “Illig wants a striker, an attacking midfielder, a center back.”
“We know how much it’s going to cost to get those impact players in here,” Illig said. “But it’s still a priority for us. The bottom line is it wasn’t good enough this year, and everyone knows it wasn’t good enough. Everyone has to do a better job. This is an opportunity for us to take a step back and figure out what it’s going to take to fix it.”
This is where it gets kind of complicated. Unless another Felipe Gutierrez falls into Sporting’s lap, attacking midfielders, just like strikers, usually command large transfer fees. Even ones *cough*Yohan Croizet*cough* who don’t pan out. Technically, only Gutierrez is paid enough to not be bought down with Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) or whatever new Garber Bucks gets invented in this new CBA. Signing two players with decent sized fees would mean they would be DPs for the duration of their deals unless their salaries were relatively low and the fees weren’t too high.
On top of all that, it’s possible that SKC need a center back more than any other spot. All these moves, barring a trade within the league or a free transfer or two, are going to be tough to do in one offseason.
PV Isn’t Going Anywhere
And for the #VermesOut crowd, it’s not happening this year. “Peter Vermes will return in 2020 as head coach and sporting director, Illig told The Star.” And with all he’s done, he deserves at least the 2020 season (and 2019-20 offseason) to try and fix what is suddenly very broken.
And PV’s Power Won’t Wane Either
According to the Star’s interview, Peter Vermes will hold “complete and total discretion” when it comes to roster moves. As Bill Parcells famously said, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” In this case, Vermes will be doing all the shopping.
An “Eye-Opening” Situation
And we’ll end with this.
“It’s eye-opening to be in the situation we’re in,” said Mike Illig, a Sporting KC principal owner. “We feel accountable to the fans for this, just based on what we say publicly. Our goal is to win championships and be perennial contenders. When we fail at that, I hold all of us accountable, including myself. I have thick skin. I expect the players and coaches and everyone else in our organization to have thick skin when it comes to the criticisms. It’s time to go to work and go fix it.”
Vermes said something very similar in the summer when things were in full meltdown mode. It’s the same sentiment many of the fans have. It is also no different for many members of the media. We’ve all been spoiled. Eight straight years of the playoffs. “Sporting Kansas City” have never missed the playoffs until this year (technically the Wizards missed, not SKC). Hopefully it’s not something anyone around KC has to get used to.
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