This past week, Sporting Kansas City announced that the club would be without Felipe Gutierrez for the rest of the 2020 season as he had surgery on his knee to correct a cartilage defect. The recovery time for that injury is seven to nine months. It’s the same surgery that former player, Jimmy Medranda had in 2018. That surgery for Medranda in August of 2018 kept him off the field in a game until May of 2019. A similar timeline would keep Gutierrez off the field until basically the beginning of the 2021 season for Sporting.
The question now for Sporting is how they’re going to deal with the absence of one of their designated players, and one of the club’s best players over his prior two years with the club so far.
The quick answer is to point back to the club’s first two games of the MLS regular season when the midfield trio of Roger Espinoza, Ilie Sanchez, and newcomer Gadi Kinda has been impressive, recording three goals and one assist in those first two games. The club then has had now 18-year-old Gianluca Busio coming off the bench in each of the first two games.
The long answer is a bit more complicated. When the MLS is Back Tournament kicks off in Orlando on July 8th, the league has 17 days before the Round of 16 match ups start on the 25th. That means teams will likely be playing their three group play games in about a 15 day stretch, certainly not a window that is unmanageable for most peak professional athletes to play three games in that stretch. The problem with that is all the players may not be at their peak level after a couple month layoff with team training. Players not at their peak would seem to point to more rotation of the squads, along with the ability to use five substitutions. After the tournament, the league has also said teams will continue the regular season at their home venues, which could also lead to a condensed schedule to close out the regular season for teams. Peter Vermes regarding the tight schedule and his team said that the team would “look at players physically and mentally one game at a time.”
With a condensed playing schedule, Vermes is likely going to need to use a bit of rotation to give some players a rest. Kansas City fans may laugh a bit at that idea considering most fans have questioned Vermes using a substitutions in the past, but it’s something that has to be considered for the situation the team and the league finds itself in.
Without Gutierrez in the midfield, it certainly makes the options thinner. The starting lineup if everyone else for the club is healthy likely sees the same midfield that started the club’s first two games of the season, Espinoza, Kinda, and Sanchez. When players need rest though is where things could start to get a little more difficult for Sporting.
The first option off the bench after those three would certainly appear to be Busio, who has subbed in for both Espinoza and Kinda in the club’s first two games. Behind Busio are three more homegrown players who round out Sporting’s midfield depth with Cameron Duke, Felipe Hernandez, and Wan Kuzain. Combined the trio though have made just eight league appearances for the club most by Kuzain, with Hernandez making two appearances late last season. Duke meanwhile has spent periods off and on playing as an outside back for Kansas City. Hernandez would likely be considered the next one up after Busio if another player needed a break.
The question for the midfield depth would be who would start in place of a resting or injured Sanchez in the “number 6” role in KC’s 4-3-3. Who’d sit deep between the center backs and play the distribution role that he does? Last year at times Gutierrez had played that role, at times appearing to be favored for Sanchez by Vermes.
Kuzain has played in the six position at times for Sporting KC II over the years, but during last season it seemed that former draft pick, Camden Riley was preferred in that position to Kuzain. If it’s not Kuzain, who else could play in that position for KC in the current system? Espinoza and Kinda both seem unlikely with Kinda being more offensive minded and Espinoza feels like a bit of a waste in a position that forces him to stay at home more. Like Kinda, Busio and Hernandez seem too offensive minded to play the position.
Outside of Kuzain, what really are KC’s options at the deep midfield position? KC could push a defender forward into the midfield position, Vermes has converted defenders to that position before with the likes of Julio Cesar and Lawrence Olum playing both positions during their time with the club. There’s also Uri Rosell, who had been primarily a center back before signing with Kansas City. So, Kansas City could look to their center backs for a potential player to fill that role.
At this point you probably don’t mess with the pairing of Matt Besler and Roberto Puncec given the way the pair played in the first two games of the season. That leaves Botond Barath and Andreu Fontas as two potential candidates Vermes could consider moving up. With Barath his style has been more physical and less on the passing and seems like an unlikely candidate to move out of the defense. As for Fontas, his speed has been a question as a center back and would be a question as well if he was pushed into the midfield, but his passing ability would be close to the ability that Sanchez has shown in the role. Of the two if Vermes was going to move one up the field into the midfield it would likely be Fontas, though that’d certainly put further pressure on Besler and Puncec (or whoever is playing center back).
Another option that KC could look at, is to add to their roster, bringing in a new player to back up Sanchez in the midfield. They could look to fit one in under their current salary cap position or they could try to utilize the league’s season ending injury rules to get some relief that way. The question there would be what the league’s status of the primary transfer window became when the league suspended play in March. (UPDATE: The transfer window was paused when the league suspended play in March) To qualify for the “season ending injury replacement player” Gutierrez’s season ending injury must have been suffered prior to the close of the primary transfer window. With his surgery being announced after the league’s primary window was originally supposed to close on May 1, the question is whether the transfer window was also suspended with the suspension of play. KC could argue that if play hadn’t been stopped the club would have been able to further diagnose Gutierrez’s injury and he would have been done for the season before the May 1st closing of the transfer window. If KC could use that process, they’d be able to bring a player in making up to $250,000 to replace Gutierrez on the roster. Sporting did the same thing last year when Rodney Wallace went down for the season and the club acquired Benny Feilhaber in a trade with the Colorado Rapids to replace him.
In the end, while Sporting’s starting midfield seems like it will be fine without Gutierrez this season, questions arise as you get further down KC’s bench depth, especially when it comes to backing up Sanchez. In a condensed tournament along with a condensed regular season for the rest of the 2020 season there will certainly be questions to be asked of Sporting’s depth and Vermes use of rotating players.