2020 has been a weird year. In life. In sports. Everything really. Because of that, the Major League Soccer (MLS) secondary transfer window is opening a bit later than usual. It opens on August 12th and runs through October 29th. Originally it was only going to run from July 7th to August 5th.
That will coincide well with the rumored return to play for Sporting Kansas City being on or around August 22nd. It will give the team (and all the other teams in MLS) a chance to address some shortcomings that were on display during the MLS is Back Tournament — which Sporting were unceremoniously bounced out of by the Philadelphia Union.
Let’s take a look at three positions of at least some level of need. But first, is there room for new signings?
State of the Roster
Currently Sporting Kansas City have 27 players under contract for the 2020 season. They have 30 possible roster spots available. Just before the MLS is Back tournament we did a look at the depth chart and while it’s shuffled a bit in terms of who starts, it’s still got all the correct players listed.
Of the 27 players, six are occupying international roster spots. The team actually has nine available international spots (one extra from the Adrian Zendejas trade). The team would have used all nine but Botond Barath was recently sold and Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez got green cards before MLS is Back started. That could be a big help.
The salary situation is less clear. The MLSPA hasn’t released their 2020 salary information, likely due to COVID-19, so we are stuck with 2019 salary information. On top of not knowing the salaries of new players like Alan Pulido and Roberto Puncec, we never really know how
many Garber Bucks much allocation money Sporting KC has to keep them compliant within the MLS salary budget. That, of course, could have a great impact on their ability to add players.
Let’s make the assumption there is at least a little wiggle room to work with.
Rostered Players: Ilie Sanchez, Wan Kuzain,
To say defensive midfielder — or the #6 — spot is thin is an understatement. The team has stalwart and veteran Sanchez and that’s basically it (don’t worry, I’ll explain below). The 29-year-old has had this position on lock down since he arrived ahead of the 2017 season. Only late in 2019 did he not start consistently when Felipe Gutierrez replaced him for a run of games. Gutierrez, as we all know, is out for at least the rest of the 2020 season and likely into 2021.
Sanchez was a fantastic player his first few seasons here but he’s clearly lost a step. And without Ike Opara covering for him (and Graham Zusi and frankly the entire defense) the defense just doesn’t look as good. Honestly, Sanchez may be better served as a ball playing center back — much like Besler who’s recently found his way to the bench. That could solve another problem below.
The only other player on the roster thought of as a defensive midfielder is Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal. And he has literally never played that spot for the first team. He played in more of a #8 role when he got on the field in 2018 and poorly timed injuries stopped him from playing for the first team in 2019. Even with
Swope Park Rangers Sporting KC II he has played the #8 role more often, ceding his defensive midfielder minutes to Camden Riley, Jahon Rad, Ayyoub Allach and others who aren’t even around anymore.
At the bare minimum, this team needs depth here. The fact that Felipe Hernandez, who is not a defensive midfielder, got the only substitute minutes for Ilie shows the team doesn’t have a backup. Hernandez has great potential, but this isn’t his position. The team could simply add a veteran presence to give Ilie a break. Someone already in MLS or out of contract around the world. If it’s just as a backup, I wouldn’t burn an international roster spot. Unless, it’s a potential future starter.
The the team could look for their long-term Ilie replacement. Someone more athletic, with good defensive prowess and the ability to play those long switches to the wings to pull apart defenses or those cutting passes that skip a few lines on their way to Alan Pulido. This would obviously cost a lot more but the long-term impact could be huge.
I’d personally target someone like Felipe Gutierrez (haven’t we advocated cloning him before) but maybe younger, and obviously less injury-prone. Maybe Gutierrez-potential is a better way too put it as otherwise that’s probably too expensive. As was beautifully said on the comments of this very site, the midfield is evolving and having players that can really play all three spots well is a huge advantage. So far, Guti is the only player that fits that mold.
Rostered Players: Matt Besler, Roberto Puncec, Winston Reid, Graham Smith, Andreu Fontas
As stated above, Besler is currently out of favor and on the bench. The results against Philly could be enough for Vermes to change his mind that Matt needs back in the starting lineup. Premier League loanee Winston Reid still hasn’t played outside of the preseason (and his loan runs only through the end of the season). Next, the starters for the last three games were new signing Roberto Puncec and 2018 first-round pick Graham Smith.
The team also supposedly has Andreu Fontas, but his SKC tenure has been very disappointing. In 2019 he was the team’s fourth highest paid player and to date he has only 11 starts (15 appearances) and just 1,056 minutes in two years with the club in regular season play. He was supposed to return from injury around March, but he still wasn’t ready when MLS is Back kicked off in July (or he had a new injury — neither are good signs). He may yet be the ball-playing left center back of the future. He’s just 30 to Besler’s 33 and he’s guaranteed through 2022.
This is very much up for debate. Does Opara want to come back to KC? If the team is going to play someone like Besler or Fontas (or even Reid, who is fairly slow) with someone like Ilie in front of them and their fullbacks bombed up the field, the team needs an athletic center back to go next to them. Roberto Puncec has shown flashes that he could be that guy, but it’s very unclear. So far, he’s no Ike. Not that it’s a bad thing, he’s just different.
It would seem at a bare minimum, the team may need a depth signing here with the loss of Botond Barath back to Hungary. If Fontas is healthy, KC could just stand pat and wait until the offseason to make a move to sure up the position. Maybe just leaving one of the two fullbacks at home could also sure up some of the defensive issues this team has faced. Remember, they are in first place in the Western Conference, it’s not all bad.
Rostered Players: Johnny Russell, Khiry Shelton, Gerso Fernandes, Daniel Salloi, Tyler Freeman
The starters here appear to be set. Some combination of Russell, Shelton or Gerso appear to have this on lock. I’ve long preferred Gerso off the bench and when Shelton went down with a groin injury, that pushed Daniel Salloi back into the starter role. He faltered against Philly (though he was hardly alone). Maybe a loan to SKC II will fix him, but he seems like a broken toy. His PK was awful against the Vancouver Whitecaps (Ilie’s wasn’t pretty either, but it went in). And as for Tyler Freeman, more time in the USL Championship will do him good.
I’d love for Sporting to go out and sign another pacey winger to come on late and shred tired defenses. Someone like Latif Blessing, who just got his green card a bit too early. Remember when SKC had to protect James Musa and Cristian Lobato in the expansion draft instead of Latif because he was no longer an “international?” Bad timing.
Another option, just for veteran depth, could be to go to the USL Championship and pay a small transfer fee ($50,000 to $100,000) to pick up a top scorer like Junior Flemmings from Phoenix Rising (who is still just 24) or former SKC man Tyler Pasher (26) who never got a chance on the wing with KC (he got a whole 45 minutes at left back) but is the league’s top scorer for Indy Eleven. The USL is full of quality players that never get a chance in MLS. With 23 man game day rosters, no reason you can’t pick one of these guys up. Winger is the position of least need, so this seems like a budget friendly option.
What Will SKC Do?
The most likely of all these moves would appear to be getting a defensive midfielder to backup Ilie. If MLS really wants teams to play 18 games in around 11-12 weeks, there will need to be squad rotation. If Peter Vermes doesn’t believe in Wan Kuzain in that spot, he needs someone to backup Ilie. If Sanchez gets hurt, this team could collapse as there is no obvious replacement.
Someone like recently retired Eric Alexander (who is just 32) or a former midfielder you guys may have heard of... Benny Feilhaber (35) is the type of player that would fit in well and hopefully be comfortable being a backup. Or, you know, someone who isn’t retired.
Outside of a move at d-mid, I could see this team standing pat with what they have or maybe adding a Homegrown signing (Kaveh Rad at CB??) and addressing any further needs in the offseason.