As we’ve been telling you here at The Blue Testament, elimination from the playoffs meant Sporting Kansas City had rapid decision making to be done regarding a good chunk of their roster. It’s just easy to forget how quick those decision have to be made. Here are the rules from the league:
“Club deadline to submit Bona Fide Offers and Exercise Options: For any clubs competing in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, one day after elimination, the club must notify the League Office of bona fide offers and exercised options. All roster decisions will be publicized by the individual clubs.”
That means Sporting KC has a single day to make decisions on 15 players who are about to be out of contract. No clue why it has to happen so fast (outside of maybe the teams in MLS Cup since there is a half-day trade window on December 13th at 8:00 AM CT).
Let’s break down the players in question, then tackle who should stay and who should go.
Categories of Player Contract Situations
Out of Contract at Season End
- Matt Besler
- Roger Espinoza
- Winston Reid (loan expires)
- Gerso Fernandes
- Erik Hurtado
- Richard Sanchez
Just a 2021 Contract Option
- Johnny Russell
- Felipe Gutierrez
- Daniel Salloi
- Graham Smith
- Erik Dick
2021 and 2022 Contract Options
- Gianluca Busio
- Felipe Hernandez
- Amadou Dia
- Wan Kuzain
As for who stays and who goes, here are my categories: Definitely Bring Back, Probably Bring Back, Maybe Bring Back and Definitely Gone.
Some information you may want when looking at who to bring back is salary data. The tough thing is that the 2020 MLS salary data was never released. Because of that, we just have 2019 data to go off of. We’ll assume standard, small raises but otherwise rates are pretty close. A regular raise seems to be about five percent or so.
Definitely Bring Back
Let’s start with some controversy. For some reason, people constantly want Roger gone. Listen to Peter Vermes in his midweek press conference before the Minnesota United game and you can see Roger is the glue holding this team together. He connects the old with the young. He connects the English and Spanish speaking players (I can’t tell you how many times in preseason he’s been my translator for interviews with new players). In 2019 he made $800,000 (and likely in the $850k range in 2020). I expect he’ll take a pay cut and return. He’s not an everyday starter anymore, but at the minimum I want a year-to-year deal for him.
He was the 2020 SKC MVP. He has one option year remaining on his contract and you have to bring him back. He was a Designated Player in 2020 but he’s probably the fourth highest paid player on the team (when factoring in transfer fees) and with Gadi Kinda becoming a DP in 2020. Russell is an Allocation Money player heading into 2021. It seems Russell wants to be here and I desperately want to see a playoff run with him, Pulido, Kinda and Gutierrez all at 100%. He’s the team’s most consistent player since he arrived. BRING HIM BACK!
His last known salary was just $90,000 (hopefully he got a raise). The team holds two more option years on him and he is going to get sold for a massive transfer fee in the next 1-12 months in my opinion (probably sooner than later). On top of that, there were games in 2020 where he was the best player on the field. He made 19 appearances (15 starts) and put in 1,275 minutes in the regular season (all career bests). Let’s just move on it’s so obvious.
Another Homegrown player on a very reasonable deal is Felipe Hernandez. He could be the team’s future Roger Espinoza replacement, he gets better all the time and at the worst he’s a quality squad player. He made just $56,250 in 2019 and I don’t see a world where he doesn’t come back. Even if he spends lots of 2021 on loan with SKC II, he’s worth having around.
We never found out what Dia made in 2020 but he spent the prior three seasons in the USL Championship with perennial contenders Phoenix Rising FC and just returned to MLS. It’s safe to say his deal was at or near the league minimum and he exceeded my expectations. He played poorly at times in the playoffs, but he won the starting job from the much higher paid Luis Martins when he was out with injury.
He could be fighting to start in 2021 at left back. I’d be more apt to release/transfer/mutually part ways with Martins than Dia (Martins is signed through 2021 with a 2022 option year). There simply isn’t much difference in my eyes and one is much cheaper and doesn’t take an international roster spot. Even in a COVID shortened season where Dia didn’t start until September 5th, he had the second most productive season of his career (12 GP, nine starts, 847 minutes not counting the playoffs).
Probably Bring Back
Most would be shocked to not have him in the “definitely” category but there is a caveat. He’s missed about half the time he’s been eligible to play in the last three seasons. He’s also probably the second or third highest paid player (we don’t quite know where Gadi Kinda will land).
It’s been a bummer he missed all of 2020 after having surgery and I don’t know anyone who’s a fan of Sporting KC and aren’t salivating over the thought of seeing Gutierrez on the field with Pulido, Busio, Kinda, Russell and their ilk. I’d pick up his option and give it a go, but some players are never the same after severe injuries, though Guti has come back from injuries in the past. Run it back one more year and see how it works out.
Gerso’s last known salary was $550,000 in 2019. It’s reasonable to think he may have gotten a raise of around $50,000. If he’s willing to re-sign for something in that neighborhood, MLS is structured in such a way that you don’t have to be a starter making that kind of money. You can’t have a ton of those players, but you can have a few. Gerso is lightning in a bottle and if he could finish as good as he can fly down the wing, he’d be in Europe making millions. He met his wife in KC. He started his family in KC. I bet he wants to come back and hopefully the contract is already being negotiated.
Probably the most controversial so far is the young Hungarian. In 2018 he looked like a star in the making. Since then, two seasons have past and he’s only scored once. He had a lot of chances in 2019 and didn’t convert them but in 2020, he couldn’t get on the field. He made seven appearances, just one start and only played 165 minutes. I’ve been screaming for a loan to Sporting KC II to get his confidence back (damn COVID-19).
He’s the player in the “probably” category I’m least sure on. But PV is Hungarian too (which has to mean something). Daniel still only makes about $140k per his 2019 numbers. He has one option year left. Pick it up. Loan him to SKC II to get that mojo back and if he finds his stroke, that’s a deal for a depth winger. If he doesn’t, hell, you can probably still sell him for a nominal transfer fee as he’s still just 24 or trade him within the league. I think he has the ability to score goals he just needs chances.
Where was Graham Smith this year? He was on the bench in the MLS Cup Playoffs against Minnesota United but in MLS regular season games he only made four appearances (all starts) for 315 minutes. He is another player that could have used time with SKC II but with all the injuries at CB there wasn’t enough depth to allow that. He has just one year left but he makes near the league minimum. You have to fill the bottom of your roster with cheap players and Smith has shown flashes. The team’s record when he started in regular season games in 2020, 2-0-2. Not bad.
Maybe Bring Back
This is hard to say but it might be time to let the future Sporting Legend walk (or retire). He spoke candidly in the preseason about wanting to stick around KC (of course) and he didn’t sound like he was going to retire, but he had a rough year. His contract expires this season and his last known salary was just under $700k. He’s the club leader in basically everything longevity related but he only played 810 minutes (10 appearances, nine starts) and he dealt with multiple injuries in 2020. Also, his play wasn’t very good. Those stats are also career lows over his 12 years in MLS.
Before I sat down to write this, I thought, bring him back on a much cheaper deal and let him be a veteran leader. And I won’t rule out that it could happen. But I thought The Blue Testament’s own Mike Kuhn said it best:
“Besler, though, I think is done in KC (as much as that hurts). I think he can still contribute in MLS, but with Puncec and Fontas’ big fat contract still on the books I don’t think you need another veteran CB. [You] need to get some youth there.”
Mike makes a good point, how many veterans does a team need? They need to get younger, more athletic and frankly, better. This one hurts.
For the record, I’m a big Hurtado fan. There are some potential issues though. Sporting KC just signed prolific USL goal scorer and Homegrown talent Wilson Harris. The other issue is there are as many as four center forwards on the roster (Pulido, Shelton, Hurtado and Harris). There isn’t enough time for everyone.
A few things could save Hurtado. First, Shelton predominantly played on the wing, where I’d argue he’s better. Second, Harris hasn’t appeared in MLS and the team may want him to start constantly for SKC II again. Next, Hurtado only made about $180k in 2019 which is a great deal for a backup striker. And finally, he was damn effective in limited minutes: 15 regular season appearances, three starts, 376 minutes and FIVE goals. That’s 1.19 goals per 90.
Because of how effective he is, someone may swoop in and offer him big money (or at least a sizeable raise). He is eligible for free agency and I have to think he tries to cash in for a deal. He just had his first child and there are only so many years to get paid. He’s only scored five goals one other time in his career (2014) so he may have just timed it perfectly.
One of four goalkeepers on the roster, Erik Dick may end up getting his 2021 option picked up. He’s super cheap and I see Richard Sanchez leaving. The only case for me is, do you bring Dick back from his Phoenix Rising loan to ride the pine behind Tim Melia so that John Pulskamp can get starts with the second team? Or do you sign young up and comer Brooks Thompson (SKC Academy/SKC II) and loan him and Pulskamp back and forth to the second team?
The only concern is Thompson has been hurt a lot in the last two years. The team could even go for another veteran backup (though I don’t see the point with Pulskamp beating out Sanchez late in the year for the backup spot). I suspect Dick will be gone, but we’ll see.
Don’t get mad at me, it’s just what it is. Reid was the best center back on the team in 2020. Of course he was. He’s a decade long Premier League veteran and on the whole he played pretty damn well. It comes down to money.
Sporting KC are reportedly paying just 15 percent of Reid’s salary during his loan. That breaks down to around $700,000 of his $4.6 million dollar deal. If the team were to pick up the option to buy Reid, he’d immediately become a Designated Player and one of (if not) the highest paid players on the team (they’d suddenly have to buy down Russell and probably not pick up Gutierrez). He’s 32-years-old and has an extensive injury history. Also, his family is apparently still living in England. I suspect he’ll get a job on another Premier League team or at least a decent money deal with another team in Europe.
Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal
Another player that is really hurt by the lack of loans to Sporting KC II in 2020. Kuzain made zero MLS appearances (but was constantly in or around the bench as needed) and just a single USL appearance for 19 minutes. In 2019 in the USL he lost his defensive midfielder spot to a player who only stuck with the team for a single season (Ayyoub Allach). He’s super cheap, so it’s not impossible he returns but there are plenty of promising young midfielders on SKC II or in the SKC Academy clawing to steal this job (e.g. Jake Davis). If he wants to keep playing soccer there will be a USLC job out there for him. It’s a real shame St Louis FC folded because that feels like the perfect spot for the Illinois native.
I’ve heard from people around Sporting KC that Sanchez is an incredibly talented in net. The problem is he really struggles to show it in games from my perspective. He played just 104 MLS minutes (albeit a portion with just 10 men on the field) and allowed four goals in that time. And they weren’t good goals either. After a while, he stopped even getting on the bench for SKC as he was replaced by 19-year-old keeper John Pulskamp.
Sporting have a history of keeping a veteran keeper to backup Melia but I’ve seen enough to gather Sanchez probably isn’t the guy. GKs do break through later in life (he’s just 26) but no one will be surprised if KC moves on. His 2019 salary was just north of $150,000 which seems like a lot for what he brought to the team.