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Where Does Sporting KC’s Roster Build Stand for 2022?

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A really deep look into all the numbers of the roster and if SKC have room to sign more players. Plus a TL;DR section at the bottom if it’s all too much for you.

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Sporting Kansas City v Seattle Sounders FC
Tim Melia (probably): ‘Let me tell you about weird MLS roster rules!’
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The start of the 2022 regular season for Sporting Kansas City is just over a month away. Hell, preseason already started behind closed doors when, presumably, Tim Melia destroyed the USMNT for not ever calling him into a camp... ever.

Over the last few weeks, Sporting KC have really kicked their 2022 roster build into high gear. They’ve signed three U-22 Initiative players (mostly likely, more on that in a bit). They’ve brought back some SKC Legends in Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza. And they added some depth from around MLS to shore up some positional questions (Ben Sweat, Uri Rosell).

So let’s take a dive into the roster and see how much space is still available to add players and what mechanisms are available to add them. We’ll use the 2021 MLS Roster Rules (this link will update to 2022 when they are out) because the rules for 2022 aren’t out yet, but with no CBA negotiations this year (for the first time in many), they should be pretty similar.

Roster Size

MLS teams are allowed to sign 30 players through various mechanisms. The roster is divided between the Senior Roster (spots 1-20, with only 1-18 being required) and the Supplemental Roster (spots 21-30) that don’t count against the MLS Salary Budget. There are more intricacies here in terms of salaries and two spots needing to be Homegrowns to be used (29-30) but nothing of impact to SKC really for the purposes of this story.

As of today, Sporting KC stand at 28 players* but that is incomplete. What does matter is that it’s likely the senior spots that are still open as SKC have plenty of Homegrowns they can throw onto the off-budget portion of the supplemental roster.

*Alan Pulido’s Roster Spot

By now you are all aware that Alan Pulido had knee surgery and is likely to be out for the entire 2022 season. The team wanted to wait to place him on the season ending injury list until they know for sure, but it seems likely he’d head that direction. First, the team said the surgery would keep him out nine to 12 months and it just happened about a week ago. The season ends early because of the 2022 World Cup, so I doubt everyone wants another situation of “will he or won’t he play” as SKC prepare for the playoffs.

Second, placing him on the injury list would free up a few things around the roster. First, it frees up a Senior Roster spot. Second, it frees up an international slot (more on that in a moment).

What it doesn’t do, as I incorrectly stated earlier in the offseason, is free up a Designated Player spot. I got confirmation from the league that it doesn’t work that way. That makes zero sense to me because if SKC have the budgetary space in their salary structure and are willing to deal with the four DP problem in 2023, I see no reason this can’t exist (more on that here). If only Kansas City was LA, Miami or New York, I’m sure an exception could be made. It’s a moot point because Vermes said the team has no intention to make a move like that.

Finally, SKC would get $250,000 in budgetary space to add a replacement player. Much like they did in that interesting trade with the Colorado Rapids in 2019 for Benny Feilhaber.

On a related note, the team confirmed that Alan Pulido’s surgery was for Osteochondral Allograft Transplant and PCL reconstruction.

“An osteochondral allograft is a piece of tissue containing bone and cartilage that is taken from a deceased donor to replace damaged cartilage that lines the ends of bones in a joint. The allograft tissue is shaped to precisely fit the defect in the damaged joint of the patient and then transplanted to repair the damage.”

The recover time for that procedure is six to 12 months. PCL reconstruction recovery is at least six months. None of that includes getting fit and up to game speed.

Designated Player Spots

Teams in MLS are allowed three DP spots on the roster. SKC’s are currently occupied by the aforementioned Alan Pulido, Gadi Kinda and Johnny Russell. As outlined above, the team cannot sign another DP. The only caveat to that would be if they bought out or transferred the contract of one of these players, but Russell just re-signed and Pulido and Kinda are coming off surgery so likely have lowered values. Plus the team has made no indication that this is in consideration.

Then the question becomes, how many of these players can be bought down? Meaning, how many are true DPs and how many can be bought down with Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). We know at least one player can be bought down because Peter Vermes confirmed this directly to The Blue Testament.

To be bought down they need to be making less than $1,612,500 a year. Johnny Russell has previously fit into this category as his last known salary was $1.6 million. Therefore, Russell should be eligible to be bought down to a TAM deal if the right player came along.

There is some confusion on Gadi Kinda. Previously, it was believed that it was not just a players salary, but also their pro-rated transfer fee that would make them a DP. Gadi Kinda was moved to a DP spot after his loan for 2020 had it’s purchase option triggered, when he moved into a DP slot and Felipe Gutierrez ultimately left the team.

In 2021, he made $918,000 guaranteed, well under the buy down number, but he’s been called a DP last season and is likely to be listed as such this season. It was his rumored $3.7 million transfer fee that made him a DP. However, many inside the league keep saying he can be bought down (Tom Bogert, Matt Doyle). I’ve made this argument before, but the math doesn’t work. So I consulted the foremost experts on MLS roster nonsense, Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal over at Allocation Disorder and The Athletic.

Paul, in the Tweet above, is quoting from something that’s not the roster rules. I asked where he got it but didn’t hear back. He is on paternity leave, so I’ll give him a pass.

“Year 3: Must be a DP, if (A) the Player’s annual average acquisition fee over the first 3 years plus (B) the Player’s compensation in year 3, exceeds the DP Eligibility Threshold. If this is not met, the Player cannot be a DP in Year 3.”

So let’s place some dates and numbers around that. Gadi Kinda joined SKC ahead of the 2020 season. This year (2022), is year three (it’s unclear if the loan year counts in that total, if not, it’s year two). His acquisition fee is technically unknown, but let’s say it’s the $3.7 million (TM has it at $4.07m). If we divide it over the four years of his deal (which includes the loan year and may be generous as opposed to the three years after he was purchased), that’s $925,000 added to each year. Using last year’s number of $918,000 that’s a combined $1,843,000. That’s over the max, therefore he is a DP in year three.

Year four however, it appears the transfer fee drops out of the equation per Paul:

“After the third year, if the player’s cash outlay (aka salary + bonuses, housing, etc.) is less than the max TAM number, he can be bought down from DP status. Year 3 is a bit murkier and based on the math of the amortized acquisition cost + salary.”

So the long and short is, we don’t know because we don’t know his fee. If the transfer fee is lower than reported, Kinda could be bought down. But it’s probably not, so he probably can’t be bought down.

Why does all this matter? Well at least one player needs to be able to bought down (Russell) for the U-22 Initiative (see below) but if a second could be bought down, Sporting KC could add another DP. It looks like they’ll need to wait until at least 2023 to do that.

U-22 Initiative

In 2021, MLS unveiled a new mechanism to bring players into the league. The U-22 Initiative, in short, allows for unlimited acquisition fees (transfer fees) for a player as long as they don’t turn 23 in their first season and they make under the max budget charge, $612,500 per year in 2022. The benefit is the team gets young, potentially high value talent that doesn’t take up a DP slot and could be sold on for a profit or become important pieces for years to come.

All indications are Sporting KC are going big on this initiative in 2022 after not using any of these slots in 2021 (which Peter explained to the media the reasons for this previously). SKC have added three players that likely fit into this category: left back Logan Ndenbe, center back Robert Voloder and forward Marinos Tzionis.

All three players were under contract from their prior teams, meaning they all probably needed a transfer fee to pry them away from their previous clubs. Tzionis’ fee was rumored at up to $2.26 million, Transfermarkt has Voloder’s at $1.98 million and Ndenbe’s is rumored at between $1 and $1.5 million.

With the size of the rumored fees, they almost all are likely to be U-22 players to fit on to the roster. U-22 contracts can be bought down with TAM and if you average these fees out they easily fit with three guaranteed years for all the players. So if the team were to find a fourth U-22 player they like, they could turn the cheapest of these into just a senior roster player with TAM.

SKC stated they will confirm player statuses before the roster compliance date on February 25th.

International Roster Spots

MLS allows teams eight roster spots. As of right now, including Pulido, the team have nine international players (Fontas, Kinda, Walter, Isimat-Mirin, Mauri, Ndembe, Voloder, Tzionis). There are three options to free up some space:

  1. Place Pulido on the season ending injury list (one spot)
  2. Trade for an international spot
  3. Acquire a green card(s) before the Feb 25th compliance date

Pulido is the easiest, but that doesn’t leave any room for additions. The going rate right now is $250,000 in GAM (of which teams have a TON more now) for a trade, but that price will likely increase as the supply of spots decreases (until late in the summer when they become super cheap because they are about to go unused and become worthless).

Finally, the green card thing is a wild card. They are simply taking longer in the world we live in now but Peter Vermes said there are players “in the queue” and they are “very far along.” I suspect some may come through, but it’s an unknown.

TL;DR

  • There are two open roster spots (but there can easily be a third)
  • SKC have no DP slots available (even with buy downs)
  • SKC likely have no U-22 slots available, but could TAM there way to one
  • There are no international slots open, but green cards are coming

As to who the team needs to sign, we’ll get to that. There is still a month to go before the season begins.