Welcome to Part 2 of our midseason awards! Go back and check out Part 1: The Defenders. We know technically the middle of the season was a couple weeks ago, but we decided to delay these stories since we didn’t want them lost in the shuffle of seven games in 22 days. That stretch is finally over, so it’s time to turn our attention further up the field.
[Editor: This story was written by Tyler Kinshella, unless otherwise noted.]
Sporting Kansas City fans are fortunate to have had Peter Vermes in charge for so many years for many reasons; the consistent success, the adaptability to a changing league, and that whistle that cuts through thousands of screaming fans on any broadcast. But for me the most interesting aspect is the longevity of the foundational formation - the 4-3-3. Essentially, we SKC fans have been able to see a decade plus of data on a singular formation and thus have gotten to know its inner workings quite well. The tactics may change, but on the whole the shape has been consistent.
Nowhere is this truth more prevalent than in the midfield. Vermes aligns the boys in an inverted triangle, meaning a single “pivot” right in front of the defense (the defensive midfielder - think Uri Rossell, Ilie, or most recently Gianluca Busio) who cycles possession and shields the backline. Further up the pitch are two “free 8’s” that cover a ton of ground and at times join in the attack. Typically it’s the left-sided “free 8” that jumps in to help the forwards (think Felipe Gutierrez or Gadi Kinda).
Most Valuable Player: Gadi Kinda
Tyler Kinshella (TK): Bet you thought it was going to be Busio, huh? Me too actually, when I started this process. However, the rankings got murkier the more in-depth I went. Hear me out though: Kinda is third on the team in Goals+ (the metric that quantifies every action a player performs on the field in terms of adding positive value to scoring goals) and is almost triple the output of Busio in nearly 300 fewer minutes (at the time of this writing). Most of Kinda’s value in G+ comes from the “receiving” category, meaning that when the ball gets to him, he doesn’t lose it - a critical component of the left-sided free 8 in Vermes’ system.
Kinda also has the most Goals+Assists of any of the midfielders, but that makes sense as he’s often the furthest forward. The rest of the counting stats are essentially a wash between the two players, but to me all this information shows is how much room Busio really has left in his development, given that he’s being compared to DP-level contributors in MLS at age 19.
Finally though, this proof is more anecdotal than anything else, but I really enjoy watching Kinda play with such joy and a first instinct to always dribble towards goal. I think his fit, especially with Alan Pulido, is nearly seamless with the roster. I don’t have much data proof but Pulido and Busio never seemed to click on offense. I think it’s because they both want to drop off and find space to play in other attackers and regularly found themselves occupying the same pockets. Kinda is much happier running off of a forward like Pulido and finding late-breaking runs or creating on his own.
Chad Smith (CS): I’ll go ahead and dissent, just to make it interesting. Tyler wrote his portion a couple weeks ago before we decided to editorially hold the content. Now, with Busio transferred away to Venezia FC, Kinda has had a chance to settle in as the starter without Busio behind him. Taking out the Leagues Cup game, Sporting Kansas City are 3-1-4 since Busio left for the Gold Cup. Kinda started everyone of those games. That’s by no means a bad record, but there are definitely some ties that should be wins.
With Busio as the starter (he started every game, in several different positions) the team was 8-3-2. Breaking it down to points per game, it’s 1.625 with Kinda starts without Busio and 2.0 when Busio is a starter. Obviously, he doesn’t get all the credit for those wins. Kinda played in eight of them after all (5-2-1, 2.0 ppg over that stretch).
However, when Busio played the d-mid spot, they are 6-2-1 which is good for 2.11 ppg. Until proven otherwise, Busio is my midseason MVP. How the rest of the year plays out will go a long way into knowing if Remi Walter can fill those shoes, if Ilie Sanchez slides back forward or if new signing Jose Mauri steps into that role. Regardless, the 19-year-old leaves big shoes to fill.
Least Valuable Player: Play your kids movement?
TK: I really struggled to come up with a single player who is an anchor in the midfield when he plays. So I am taking a bit of a cop out and calling the lack of appearances by both Felipe Hernandez and Cameron Duke the LVP of the season so far. It’s hard to critique Vermes’ choices when SKC are second in the league in both points and PPG (behind the Revs in both - hey Bruce Arena) [Editor: this has dipped slightly since it was originally written but SKC are still 3rd in the league and 4th in PPG].
But both of these dudes have shown themselves worthy of more opportunities. Roger Espinoza once again leads the midfield in minutes by about 400 or so and largely looks set to do so for the rest of the season. Kinda, when healthy, looks every bit the DP he is paid as, and neither of those two young guys can play the 6. Finally, a new signing in the midfield to take the spot of Busio in Jose Mauri does not bode well for Hernandez and Duke. Here’s to hoping they outright win the spots on their own and force PV’s hand!
CS: I had originally written that Remi Walter was the LVP because, at the time of the original writing of this story, he had just missed five weeks of soccer and the games before that he hadn’t been incredibly impactful. But since then, he has solidified himself as the starting defensive midfielder and outside of a highly debatable red card (the first of his career), he’s looks pretty dang solid. So I’ll completely cop out of this category and agree with Tyler and call it a day.
Honorable Mention: Remi Walter
TK: Injuries have really hampered his SKC career so far, but his passing accuracy is over 90 percent. Ilie outshines him in about every other category though that matters for a DM (tackles won, successful duel percentage, etc.) but I think that’s because Ilie has played about 400 more minutes to date. But I simply can’t shake the notion that a healthy, functioning Walter at the DM position has the best lineup potential left for SKC. Especially if Ilie will be needed as a center back, the importance of Walter growing into the squad is critical as there is little past history to suggest Mauri will be ready to impact the season.
CS: I’ll take another position, just to have made a point, and say Felipe Hernandez and Cam Duke. Hernandez has only six appearances, four starts and 407 minutes, while Duke has six appearances, two starts and just 243 minutes, but they’ve both looked like they are ready for primetime. The real shame of the season, as Tyler points out above, is their limited involvement so far. Hernandez has been absent for personal reasons just as he was becoming a regular starter and Duke simply hasn’t been given enough chances, though I hope to see that change as the season progresses.
So that’s the halfway mark for the midfield trio, what are your hopes for the second half of the season and who do you think has been Sporting’s most valuable midfielder this year?