Sporting Kansas City’s 2019 season ended about three weeks ago now down in Dallas and since then there have been plenty of talk about where things went wrong, where things started to fall apart and how they ended up falling apart.
Things from the Ike Opara trade coming back to bite KC, to players far under performing their expected goals, to the speed of the team have all been talked about as part of the club’s problems in 2019. None of them are wrong either, all played a role in KC’s poor 2019, but focusing on another was the age of the roster that Peter Vermes put together.
Throughout Sporting Kansas City’s struggles in the 2019 season much was made about Vermes and KC’s roster building, specifically his reliance on players who were in the tail end of their career. Players like Matt Besler, Tim Melia, Seth Sinovic, and Graham Zusi. All four of those players are over the age of 30, and all four of those players started at least 60% of KC’s games in 2019.
To be fair to Vermes, he couldn’t have expected the drop off that was seen from all those players being as steep as it was in 2019. At the same time when that many of your starting lineup in the majority of your games is over 30, that’s a risk you take. With those four starting over 60% of KC’s games I took a look at the average age of KC’s starting lineup, KC’s average age was 28.75 in 2019.
Compared to the rest of the league that was third oldest overall behind only the Chicago Fire (29.14) and Minnesota United (28.95). (Note: for the rest of the league I used the age of the players at the end of the season, for KC I keep those records on a per game basis. Following the same criteria that I used for the rest of the league, KC’s average age is actually second overall at 28.97.)
Along with Besler (25 starts), Melia (32), Sinovic (21), and Zusi (26) you also had Roger Espinoza (15 starts), Benny Feilhaber (13), and Kristian Nemeth (18) all over 30 regularly getting starts as well.
Sporting’s players over 30 accounted for 151 of KC’s 374 starts in MLS play in 2019, just over 40% of their starts. That’s the fourth most of any team in the league with only the previously mentioned Chicago (200), Portland Timbers (176) and Minnesota (175) eclipsing that number.
The team has reached the point where these players need to start being phased out of the team. They’ve been great players for the club, you can argue that of the seven, six are extremely qualified candidates to one day be up on the wall as a Sporting Legend. But they’ve had their time, and while you don’t just kick them all to the curb, it’s time to start thinking about life after these players.
In his interview with Thad Bell, when talking about regularly using players creeping into their mid-30s, Vermes mentioned that players used to be in their prime from 28-32 but can now play further into their 30s than before. Following that criteria, only Feilhaber and Melia (goalkeepers tend to maintain their form later into their 30s anyway) were older than 32 (though Nemeth is the only one that’s younger than 32).
In fact using that criteria for a player’s prime, Vermes had 13 players that were in their prime still by the end of the club’s 2019 season, including Gerso Fernandes, Ilie Sanchez, Felipe Gutierrez, Johnny Russell, Nico Hasler, Erik Hurtado, Andreu Fontas, and Rodney Wallace. Including all the starts by players in that age range, only Minnesota had a higher percentage of their starts come from players in that age range. KC had 234 of their 374 starts come from players in the 28 to 32 age range, Minnesota had 274.
The problem for the age of the Sporting KC team is when you look at the younger side of KC’s roster. When you look at the players that should start to reach their prime playing years in the next handful of years, players in the range of 23 to 25 years old right now. For Kansas City in 2019 they only got 21 starts from players between those ages. Those 21 starts came from only five players on the KC roster with Graham Smith leading the way with 10; Daniel Salloi (7 after he turned 23), Jimmy Medranda (2), Adrian Zendejas (1) and Eric Dick (1) round out the group of players who should be entering their prime playing years. That’s the second fewest of any team in MLS this year with only the LA Galaxy getting fewer starts from that age range of players (18). Minnesota (25) and Montreal (35) also got less than 10% of their starts from players between the ages of 23 and 25.
When it comes down to it, Kansas City has a gap in the development of their talent on their roster; they have the experienced backbone of the team that has been around for a while. That backbone has been supplemented by players who are in their prime now that can support the team now. The problem though is that the younger players on the roster over the last handful of years haven’t been coming up and really pushing those established veterans. For years Vermes has said that he wanted to bring players in to push for positions as that would make the team stronger, unfortunately he’s not been getting the return from a number of the younger players that he’s brought in for one reason or another.
For the most part, since Sporting won MLS Cup in 2013 the starts for players that should be entering their prime soon has decreased. In 2014, 16.84% of the starts went to players between the ages of 23 and 25. The next year, 2015 it was its high for the period of time with 22.73% of the starts going to players soon to be in their prime. Since then though the numbers have dropped, from 19.25% in 2016 to 14.44% in 2017, by 2018 it was under 10% with just 9.09% of starts before this year’s drop to just 5.61% of starts.
While that number has dropped, the retention of the players in that age range hasn’t been the best either, so the majority of players that have been brought in before their prime aren’t developing into their prime in KC. Players like Jordi Quintilla, Saad Abdul-Salaam, Amadou Dia, Soony Saad, Emiliano Amor and others were all brought into Kansas City in that age range where the player was close to reaching their peak performing years. All those players (and others) are no longer with the club.
To Vermes’ credit he hasn’t missed on many players in that age range who have gone on to surpass the level they were at when they were with KC, Abdul-Salaam is a squad player for the Seattle Sounders, Quintilla plays for a mid-table club in the Swiss top division, Dia is playing for Phoenix Rising FC in the USL, while Saad (Lebanon) and Amor (Argentina) are playing outside the United States.
If that general concept of a team not having that next group of players step up into their prime, it should, the same thing basically happened in the USA’s last World Cup qualifying cycle, where they too had a lost generation of players who did not transition from youth success into full national team players.
The good news for Kansas City though is that Vermes is able to bring in players who are in their prime, unlike the US who is stuck (mostly) with their player pool as it is. Vermes can go out and acquire players that are in their prime to come in and fill slots that players close to their prime never reached. Players like Russell and Gutierrez were brought in in their prime, while others like Ilie Sanchez and Botond Barath were brought in around the time they would start to reach their prime.
While there are always hits or misses in the international market, one area where Vermes had usually been able to find success for KC is building through the draft with players like Besler, Zusi, Espinoza, Dom Dwyer, CJ Sapong and others all drafted by Vermes either as head coach or technical director, but that avenue hasn’t produced results over the last few years.
Starting with the 2014 draft, after KC had won MLS Cup, KC has gotten a grand total of 151 league appearances from the 20 players that the club has drafted. 127 of those appearances come from KC’s three first round picks in 2015 (Abdul-Salaam, Dia, and Connor Hallisey). In fact only seven of the 20 players even made KC’s roster for any length of time in that stretch.
Now it’s true the club was generally picking later in the draft due to their success or trading away their first round picks in 2014 and 2016, but Vermes hasn’t gotten much success in the draft lately.
The good news for KC is the club has a crop of younger players from the academy coming up that in theory should start to contribute more to the club. There are six (Gianluca Busio, Cameron Duke, Tyler Freeman, Felipe Hernandez, Wan Kuzain and Jaylin Lindsey) players that were on the roster in 2019 that are all under the age of 23 right now.
Along with those six the club made more of an effort in 2019 to get younger players and academy players time on the Swope Park Rangers. Players like Wilson Harris and Kaveh Rad started over half of the Rangers games in 2019. That experience should hopefully help them to contribute to the club in 2019.
Looking back on 2019 it had a feeling of a last ride, a last big chance for trophies with the core group of players on the team. With that falling flat in 2019 a roster makeover is needed for the team as it needs to get younger, not just on the roster but in terms of games played, games started and minutes played for the club.
It’s not a makeover that will happen in one offseason with the way the contracts of KC’s veterans are structured, but it’s one that needs to occur. It’s been said many times in the last couple of months, but Vermes really needs to have a successful offseason this year in terms of player acquisitions. He’s done similar things before building the team that won three US Open Cups and one MLS Cup between 2011 and 2017, now he has to do it again, this time with an MLS that has changed and evolved its roster building.