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Two Perspectives on Sporting KC’s Subbing/Rotation Patterns

The case against it is easy, can we make a case for it?

MLS: Austin FC at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Ask any player on Sporting Kansas City and they will surely tell you they want to play. They aren’t tired. They have to push through. Let’s look at both perspectives on this debate of if the squad should be rotated and if more substitutes should be used.

The Case For Subs and Rotation

This is very clearly where I come down if you’ve read nearly anything I’ve written for The Blue Testament in the last few weeks. Hell, the last few years. When there are three games in a week, it seems fairly clear some sort of rotation should be happening. Not a full swap of the lineup, but I’d advocate for a few subs in the mid-week and a couple different ones on the weekend at the least. Then of course, use your bench! Someone tell Peter he gets five subs!

If you watched the last two games against Minnesota United (a 2-1 loss) and Austin FC (a 3-1 loss), it’s hard to not see that the boys were tired. They would push really hard at times, but they’d struggle to get back on defense, leave huge gaps in the midfield, or just not have that little extra jolt of energy when it was needed. The Minnesota goals weren’t as egregious, but all the Austin ones were so clearly exhaustion (even the one 30 seconds in where I’d argue they were saving their legs to play 90 minutes since their coach won’t give them a rest).

But don’t tell Peter Vermes that.

In the press conference after the loss to Austin, before the second question could even be fully asked, Vermes went off. He cut off Shaun Goodwin mid-question and even threatened to move on to the next question before Shaun squeezed in a half-question of if it was tired legs.

“It’s not tired legs,” started an upset Vermes. “They’re professional athletes. The weather is beautiful. To play a game like this after you played and you play again this weekend, big deal. It’s not tired legs. It’s not tired legs at all. That’s an excuse. What do you think the other teams have to do in this league? What do you think they do, change the whole entire team every game? No. Guys have to play in this kind of environment.”

His observations make me wonder what games he was watching. At half-time in the Austin game he said SKC were “sleeping.” Probably because they were tired. After the Minnesota game he said Minnesota “wanted it more.” I find it hard to believe a team in first place didn’t want to win. At what point is it his responsibility as the manager to recognize the players won’t ask not to play and he has to decide to rest them or make them at least come off the bench? Personally, those answers really bothered me.

Additionally, as has been pointed out in the comments section of this website, on social media and anywhere you can find a knowledgeable SKC fan, fatigue isn’t just being tired (though they so clearly were). It’s mental too. It shows itself in the poor touches and missed passes. Being late to every second ball. Not being able to close down your man. Not making the recovery run after a turnover.

I’ve seen some make the case that Sporting KC have sports scientists and fitness coaches that have troves of data and they’ll pull off the players if they aren’t capable of going. However, other teams are using their subs. Other teams are rotating their lineups. They have staff members in those roles as well. The data all around the football world doesn’t support running out essentially the same lineup four times in 12 days. Even if it did, let’s make a case for other reason to sub and rotate.

First, you get valuable minutes for your non-starters. Some of the Sporting KC roster are probably not MLS ready (though we don’t know because they never play). I’m okay with the youngest, least experienced players like Ozzie Cisneros and Kayden Pierre having to wait. But then there are guys with tons of USL minutes to their names (Wilson Harris, Jake Davis) or full collegiate careers (Grayson Barber) who rarely play. Davis has one MLS minute. Barber has 131. Harris 174.

Even Cam Duke, who has been a solid contributor when given a chance, only has 650 minutes. And many of those minutes haven’t come recently as he had two games when he wasn’t used and lately he’s been getting into games later and later.

All this lack of experience may mean these guys aren’t ready come the playoffs or if another injury arises and you need them.

Which brings me to my second reason: injuries. Gadi Kinda went down with a hamstring injury late against Austin. He had played all 90 minutes in the proceeding three games and was on his way to getting all 360 possible minutes in 12 days before he was hurt. There is no word on how long he’ll be out.

And let’s not pretend Kinda’s injury is the first from overuse. The team has had a spate of hamstring injuries this year (which are, admittedly, not always overuse injuries). Nicolas Isimat-Mirin has had a couple muscle injuries and was one of the rare players rotated in this stretch to avoid a third injury. Jaylin Lindsey did in his hamstring requiring Graham Zusi to play a ton for being one of the oldest guys on the team. The list goes on.

Just imagine if another injury hits basically anywhere on the field. There are only four forwards who play and one is still recovering from surgery (Alan Pulido), another is coming back from injury (Daniel Salloi) and Gadi Kinda was the emergency fifth forward and he’s out.

In the midfield Jose Mauri may not be fully healthy as he couldn’t get into the game despite Ilie Sanchez looking utterly exhausted on Wednesday. If Ilie, Walters or Espinoza go down and Mauri isn’t back, Vermes would have no choice but to play someone he hasn’t given hardly any minutes to. But midfield is in the best shape because at least Cam Duke has some experience.

Imagine if a defender went down. Zusi’s backup is Lindsey, who is hurt and Kayden Pierre who has zero MLS minutes. Or if a CB goes down, Ilie can slide back, but then the midfield has no subs or someone else who has barely played, like Kaveh Rad, has to start. At left back, Amadou Dia has 101 minutes and looked awful in his brief substitute appearance.

I could go on and on. It just seems so obvious. But let’s try to make another case.

The Case Against Subbing and Rotating

When you mention substitutions or rotations, as you saw above, Vermes isn’t happy with the questions. When members of the media have tried to pin him down on his perceived over-usage of players or unwillingness to make changes in games (even ones the team is way behind or way ahead in), he is quite evasive in his answers. On more than one occasion, he essentially told me he had a ‘secret plan’ that he can’t share on why he’s doing what he is doing.

What if the secret plan actually works? Stay with me for a second.

On Sunday, Sporting KC will wrap up their season against Real Salt Lake. They’ll almost certainly run out a similar lineup (minus injuries) and what happens in the game (and other games) will matter for playoff seeding (though I’m predicting a loss with no rotation). However, worst case, SKC will finish third (and be sent to the Leagues Cup in 2022 instead of the Champions League). But unless they get some help by them winning or finding a draw, Seattle losing and Colorado losing or staying level on points, they won’t be the number one seed and they won’t get a bye.

But they’ll still be in the playoffs. Anything can happen in the playoffs. Though backing in with three straight losses isn’t promising.

First, they’ll need to overcome a problem they’ve had, winning after breaks of 10 or more days (there is a FIFA international break between the end of the MLS season and the start of the playoffs). They are 0-2-2 in games off extended breaks in 2021. However, you don’t have to win to advance in the playoffs. You can earn a tie and then put the brick wall that is Tim Melia into a PK shootout and hope for the best.

If Sporting get beyond that first playoff game, they’d have a maximum of three games to go and they will get a bit of rest between each game (unless MLS does some truly stupid scheduling and have them play late in one round and very early in the next). Here is where Vermes’ plan could work. The players won’t quite get a week off, but they aren’t used to getting any time off lately, so maybe they’ll recover a bit quicker than their counterparts (who will surely rotate less in the playoffs). They just have to string three or four wins together in a row to lift a trophy.

I truly believe this is one of the best Sporting KC teams I’ve ever seen play. The front line of Pulido, Russell and Salloi could be the best front three in the league. Their defense, while questionable at times, have a fantastic center back pairing of Isi and Fontas (who only have 10 starts together). They also have multiple three game winning streaks on the season and they are one of the leagues better road teams since they are unlikely to have homefield advantage throughout.

I’m not ruling anything out for these playoffs.

In the end, I disagree with the way the roster has been handled around substitutions and squad rotation. But it could all still work out. It’s more likely not to work and then we can say, ‘I told you so,’ but we’d all probably rather KC just win the damn MLS Cup.

On a final note, I had to share this meme. So good.