The 2021 MLS season came to an unceremonious end on Saturday night when Sporting Kansas City faltered against Real Salt Lake. As much as it still stings, the offseason starts almost immediately. Teams eliminated have already announced their roster moves and Sporting KC will no doubt join them soon.
Before that happens, lets play fantasy Sporting Director and decide what we’d do with the SKC roster. First, a little background. Before the season ended, there were 30 players under contract. Four are immediately free agents at the end of the 2021 MLS season.
It’s also worth remembering, MLS rosters max out at 30 players. Some players will have to go to make room for new players, however, there is some wiggle room. Tyler Freeman is on loan in the German second division at Karlsruher SC until the middle of next year and one player each season can go on a year-long loan to SKC II to create another roster space.
So we’ll go player by player and decide who to keep or who to let walk and also take a look at the impending free agents and decide who should return. There is the caveat that, players might not want to return. Remember in 2020 when SKC tried to keep Gerso Fernandes but he left. They tried to offer Felipe Gutierrez a lower deal and he declined.
So join me (Chad) and my fellow The Blue Testament colleague, Mike Kuhn, in deciding who should stay and who should go. Give your takes, like you always do, in the comments.
Players with Options for 2022
Chad Smith (CS): I think for most this is a no-brainer. Ilie has been a constant staple in this team since joining ahead of the 2017 season. However, I think a few things are worth considering. He makes $1 million per season. He may not be a starter at defensive midfielder and he’s definitely not a starter at CB. For all those complaining about SKC’s lack of depth, I think it’s obvious $1 million could be spent in ways that would better help this team. All that said, I expect he’ll be back for one last season, but this could be the shock of the offseason if he were gone. I imagine Jose Mauri gets a chance to earn his way into the starting lineup next year, much like Remi Walter essentially took Roger’s job.
Mike Kuhn (MK): From Peter Vermes’ side of things I agree this is a no brainer, Ilie is one of his guys, he’s one of the leaders on the team, I have little doubt his option will be picked up. I think a few questions can be asked of Ilie though including his salary, his pace, and where his position is in the team going forward. Across all competitions in 2021, Ilie played 33 games, 21 of those were at center back. Granted the reason for that mostly had to do with the fact that Nicolas Isimat-Mirin’s injuries, but during that time KC held its own in the midfield with a rotation of Gianluca Busio, Remi Walter, Roger Espinoza, and Jose Mauri playing the six during those games. Does Vermes consider the possibility of moving forward without Ilie and use his salary elsewhere in the team? Unlikely, but it’s certainly something that could be considered.
CS: I won’t write much on this. Bring him back. Sure, he’s had a couple injury altered seasons, but he’s still young (22 in March) and he’s the heir apparent at right back for now, though Kayden Pierre may have something to say about that long-term. Oh, and he’s really cheap as an MLS Homegrown player.
MK: Lindsey missed the back half of the season this year with a hamstring injury picked up in the Leagues Cup against Club Leon. Before that he’d made 14 appearances, a career high for him. Being on a HomeGrown Player contract and likely the near term replacement at right back for Graham Zusi makes picking up his option an easy decision.
CS: Martins takes a lot of heat but I think he’ll be the de facto starter in 2022 until someone can unseat him. He has a healthy contract ($340,000 in 2021), but he’s honestly gotten better each season. He’s not perfect, but left footed attacking fullbacks that fit this system are clearly not easy to come by. He’ll be a free agent at the end of 2022.
MK: The defense for KC needs some changes to it. For the first time in club history the team didn’t win a single game 1-0. Not specifically blaming Martins for that but I think the left back position is a position that could be looked at to upgrade in the offseason. I think his contract will be picked up by Vermes, but this is one where I’m likely to disagree with the coach on.
CS: Everyone loves a comeback story. Hernandez’s suspension for gambling was unfortunate, but this team could have used him in the midfield in 2021 and they will need his depth pushing to start again in 2022. Also, he’s cheap and it’s not like PV to walk away from a guy who asked for help and has played his heart out.
MK: I would love to see Hernandez make a comeback after his suspension and be a successful contributor to the team as a player who came up through a club affiliate, to the academy, to Swope Park, to SKC, he’s pushed himself to reach this point. I’m okay with picking up his option this year, again because it’s a club friendly HGP contract but I feel like he’s going to need to show progress in overcoming his gambling issues. Obviously he won’t be returning to the field until the league clears him and I’m not going to throw the player’s career out just yet, but I still have a number of concerns.
CS: This is one of the easier decisions for me. He makes nearly $600k and barely contributed in 2021 (3 GP, 2 starts, 130 minutes in MLS). The team should decline his option and look for a cheaper alternative to be the primary backup to Nicolas Isimat-Mirin (or a depth piece if they believe Kaveh Rad is that guy).
MK: Like Chad, I don’t see this as being much of a decision given Puncec’s salary, 2021 contributions, and at times appearing to have fallen behind Kaveh Rad on the club’s center back depth chart. Puncec’s time with KC should be done.
CS: It saddens me to say, but we may have seen the last of Amadou Dia. He barely saw the MLS field in 2021 (4 GP, 1 start, 101 minutes). At 28, he’s not the answer at left back and I could see Vermes looking for someone younger (and faster) to be a depth piece. Luis Martins has proved to be an iron man and misses next to no time. I imagine Dia is gone, but I could see him coming back just because he’s inexpensive and knows the system.
MK: I think this is the end of Dia’s second stint in KC. He finished 2020 as the starting left back, but never really got himself going in 2021. Dia’s not on a big contract with Sporting, but at 28 and having not been much of a contributor this year, going younger while also staying relatively inexpensive seems likely.
CS: We haven’t begun to see the talent of this kid. I’m hoping he earns many more minutes in 2022 and beyond. Pick up that option!
MK: An easy option to pick up in my opinion, still young and has shown plenty at the USL Championship level. Needs more time at this level to prove if he can do it at the MLS level.
CS: Another player fans don’t even know yet. Thompson has had a lot of injuries in his history, but if he can get healthy (zero MLS games and only 5 in USL in 2021) he could be a keeper of the future. He’ll be back.
MK: I don’t see a reason to not bring him back in 2022, the only question for him and the rest of the goalkeeping core for KC is whether they’ll carry four goalkeepers again or if they’ll ride with Thompson, Tim Melia, and John Pulskamp.
Impending Free Agents
The deadline to make a bonafide offer to free agents was actually yesterday, November 29th. So this already has or hasn’t happened, but it wasn’t public knowledge at the time of this writing. The team has four free agents.
CS: The toughest of all the decisions. I think we may have seen Roger’s last ride. He played pretty well for most of 2021 and did wear down as the year went on, despite his usage declining compared to recent seasons (where he was healthy or there was a full season). Remi Walter has clearly taken his starting position in my eyes and is much younger. Then there are guys like Hernandez and Jake Davis right there waiting to take his backup minutes. It’s not out of the question he gets another one year deal, but I think he rides off into the sunset. I hear SKC II needs a coach anyways. Roger is one of my favorite players and if he’s gone it will hurt, but I think it may be time.
MK: With the depth at central midfield for Kansas City right now this very well could have been the last time we saw Espinoza on the field for KC. Part of me isn’t ready for this to be the end for him, but that’s the heart and not the head talking. With the midfield depth that’s returning, KC would be able to move on from Espinoza if they choose to. Like Matt Besler last year that it just would be really weird to see him in another MLS jersey. If my heart is making the decision, I’d offer Espinoza a one year contract with an option for 2023 to allow him to stay in KC with his new wife and retire as a player for Sporting KC.
CS: Zusi just finished one of the better seasons of his career. I just can’t see him retiring, even with the year ending in heartbreak. I imagine he starts signing one-year deals (at a hopefully reduced rate) and splits time more evenly with Lindsey. I think that was the plan this year before Lindsey got hurt. At least one for year for Zeus.
MK: Of the two veteran players out of contract, Zusi is the one I think is more likely to be back in 2022. The right back position for KC is deep in terms of players with Lindsey and Kayden Pierre still under contract, I’m not sure either player is ready at the moment for the full time starting job. So unless someone new is brought in I think Zusi is going to be back in 2022. As Chad mentioned, Zusi had his best year at right back since at least 2018, if the club can manage his minutes he’ll be able to be a solid contributor next year. For me I’d give him a one year guaranteed contract with an option for 2023.
CS: It saddens me to say, McIntosh is probably gone. I only interviewed him a couple times but he gave such thoughtful, considerate answers, it makes it hard not to like him. However, John Pulskamp is clearly the primary backup and Thompson is waiting in the wings. Keeping four goalkeepers always struck me as odd and it’s not out of the question that Kendall could come back so Pulskamp and Thompson can spend an extensive amount of time on loan in the new MLS Third Division.
MK: Whether the answer to my earlier question is that KC carries four or three goalkeepers, one of them isn’t going to be McIntosh. With Pulskamp being the clear number two behind Tim Melia the McIntosh may want to find a spot where he could get more time. If KC does carry a fourth goalkeeper next year as a veteran to allow Pulskamp and Thompson to split time with whatever league Sporting KC II is in, Vermes will likely find that player elsewhere.
CS: This is slightly tougher than Puncec for me because Smith is cheap and honestly, a very serviceable player. If SKC move on from him and Puncec, that leaves only three center backs on the roster (Isi, Andreu Fontas and K. Rad — though technically, sort of four if you bring back Ilie). Smith wasn’t event he most used CB on SKC II (that belongs to Danny Barbir) and he made zero MLS appearances this year. I bet the team moves on from him and wouldn’t be surprised to see Barbir or a low cost veteran fill this role.
MK: Smith was one of two field players to not see the field for the first team in 2021, the other being Tyler Freeman. He fell to sixth on the center back depth chart this year, behind Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Andreu Fontas, Ilie Sanchez, Kaveh Rad, and Roberto Puncec. At 26 him breaking through as a starter full time for the club seems unlikely. It’s probably time to move on and find a younger depth option to go along with Rad, whether that be from SKC II, one of the league’s numerous drafts, or other league mechanism.
It takes a little bit of the fun out of it that Mike and I are mostly in agreement. But that doesn’t mean you have to agree. Let us know your take in the comments.