Let me start off by saying unequivocally that I wanted Felipe Gutierrez to come back to Sporting Kansas City for the 2021 season. I feel like I need to get that out of the way first.
When on the field, the former designated player (DP) and 2019 team MVP showed his quality in class that led to 19 goals and five assists across 52 MLS appearances (49 starts). He also started all four of Sporting’s 2018 playoff games, earning three assists before the club unceremoniously was knocked out in the Western Conference Final by the Portland Timbers.
Of course, the problem with Felipe is that he wasn’t always on the field.
He joined Sporting KC ahead of the 2018 season as a DP, though he only appeared in just over half of the club’s regular season matches due to a groin injury. He had a bounce back 2019 essentially missing no time and winning the team MVP award, before suffering yet another serious injury in 2020 and missing the entire year. The Blue Testament has previously covered Felipe’s growing history of significant injuries that date to before joining Kansas City.
Could a healthy Felipe return to his 2019 form? It’s certainly possible, though it’s far from a guarantee, as was pointed out to me on Twitter.
Fast-forward to what we know now: We know that Sporting KC opted out of Felipe’s DP-level contract that was set to pay him in the neighborhood of at least the $1.65 million he made in 2019. We also know that Peter Vermes has said the club was in negotiations with the midfielder.
Now, the latest rumors indicate that Felipe is likely to return to his former club in Chile, meaning his time in Kansas City seems to be over. As liked as Gutierrez was by SKC fans, this comes as a sad revelation to many, myself included.
Trying to make myself feel better, I began looking at Sporting KC’s 2021 roster as of now, thinking about what losing Felipe may mean for the club going forward. This is where I need you to stick with me for a bit as I work through this...
Felipe Gutierrez leaving Sporting KC could actually be a blessing in disguise.
Sporting KC’s Midfield Depth
Let’s start by looking at the midfielders currently on Sporting’s roster. We can safely assume that Gadi Kinda and Rodger Espinoza will occupy two of the three starting midfield spots (the No. 10 and No. 8 spots respectively). The No. 6 defensive spot will likely be filled either by new signing Remi Walter or veteran Ilie Sanchez. 18-year-old Gianluca Busio, who appeared in 19 games (15 starts) in 2020 for SKC, is also available for selection, as is 22-year-old Felipe Hernandez and 19-year-old Cam Duke, who both showed signs of promise in 2020.
As The Blue Testament’s own Mike Kuhn pointed out on Twitter, SKC has at least five starting caliber midfielders on the roster with some solid depth behind them.
And arguably a 5 man starting rotation in midfield with Ilie, Walter, Kinda, Busio, & Espinoza, plus Hernandez and Duke who got minutes last year.— Mike (@downthebyline) February 12, 2021
Where would Felipe Gutierrez fit in? He most-often played in the No. 10 attacking midfield role, a spot now firmly occupied by Gadi Kinda after SKC officially made his transfer permanent this offseason. Gutierrez could play in that No. 8 role where Roger resides, though he wasn’t frequently used there in Peter Vermes’ system, and Felipe Hernandez is likely to see more time there this year. Gutierrez did get some time playing in the holding No. 6 role, though it’s hard to imagine him playing there over both Ilie and Remi Walter.
We also know Gianluca Busio has his sights set on Europe at some point in the near future, and Sporting KC was rumored to value him around $10 million. If they want to get that kind of cash for the young midfielder, he needs to get more time and show more of what he can do.
All that leaves Felipe as the odd man out, especially after missing all of 2020. It’s no wonder that Sporting opted out of his large contract and tried to renegotiate to bring him below the DP threshold.
Sporting KC’s 2021 Needs
Heading into the offseason I said Sporting KC had three primary needs. The first was some depth at the No. 6 position. That was addressed with the Remi Walter signing. The second need was rebuilding the back line, which SKC has started to do by signing CB Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and with reported interest in Argentinian defender Lautaro Giannetti.
That leaves the front line as the lone outfield position group without an addition or potential upgrade in 2021, which brings me to the third need I identified for SKC: left wing.
Matt Doyle of MLSSoccer.com published an article dissecting the current roster construction of teams heading into the season. His proposed 2021 depth chart made painfully clear that SKC has virtually zero depth across the front line, with left wing being a primary area of concern.
Former DP and starting LW Gerso Fernandes is likely not returning to SKC, and Daniel Salloi hasn’t been in form for two years now. That leaves Khiry Shelton as the de facto starter on the left wing, though I think he tends to do better at the No. 9 or on the right side.
Shelton also seems to be the de facto second choice at both the No. 9 behind Alan Pulido and RW behind Johnny Russell. That leaves virtually no room for injury or error. No disrespect to homegrowns Wilson Harris, Ozzie Cisneros, Daniel Salloi, Grayson Barber, Tyler Freeman, but I just don’t see any of them being regular contributors in 2021.
All that is to say, I’m certainly not comfortable with the state of that front line, and I’m sure Peter Vermes isn’t either, despite what he may say in public.
How does Felipe leaving play into this?
Sporting KC currently has two DPs signed to the roster: Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell. MLS roster rules allow each team to sign three DPs, and since Felipe was a DP his spot has now opened up for another potential signing (due to his reported transfer fee Kinda could end up occupying the third DP spot when the season, begins but as of now the club does not list him as a DP and even then Russell could have his DP spot bought down to free up a slot).
Where should Sporting KC use that spot? That’s where left wing comes in. Sporting KC reportedly tried to sign 24-year-old AS Monaco winger Samuel Grandsir, and even though the transfer didn’t come to fruition, it shows a desire to improve the front line on the wing.
If SKC can find a dynamic, DP-level left winger who is willing to come to the US, it could be one of the final pieces to make this team a true contender in the Western Conference in 2021. Gerso was loved by many, but despite his pace and creativity, his finishing often left something to be desired.
A left-wing with a bit more goal scoring pedigree or someone who can more consistently feed Alan Pulido the ball in dangerous situations would surely be a welcome addition to the 2021 roster. It would also free up Gadi Kinda in the middle of the field to show off his creativity, and it may even take some defensive pressure off of Johnny Russell across the field.
Now, is it a requirement that Felipe leave in order for Sporting KC to sign a left wing, DP or otherwise? Not necessarily, but it seems pretty clear that Felipe didn’t have much interest in lowering his salary to what SKC was looking for, so the club can now use that freed up money and DP spot elsewhere.
We don’t yet know exactly how this story ends with Sporting KC and Felipe Gutierrez, since what we’re only working off a single, paywalled report out of Chile, but where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. Right now, the smoke tends to be blowing in the direction of a return to his home country.
As I said at the top of the article, I really enjoyed watching Felipe with SKC, and my preference was for him to return this year. If that’s not a possibility, here’s hoping that Peter Vermes and Co. can take an unfortunate situation, make the best of it, and turn it into a positive. They’ve done it before, they can certainly do it again.