Last week, Sporting Kansas City made news by making their first offseason acquisition. They haven’t even announced who is gone from the team yet, but more guys are coming in. MLS teams actually have until November 14th this year to announce who will be sticking around, which leaves open the room for questions and speculations. Let’s start there.
Does Radoja Coming Mean Fontas is Staying?
One of the first bits of news that came out after the signing of Radoja was that he talked to Andreu Fontas about coming to Kansas City.
“I haven’t seen too much of the league, MLS, but I have friends who play in MLS and before I knew that Kansas City wanted me, I spoke with my friends and I only heard very, very good things about the league and the country,” he said. “I spoke with (Andreu) Fontas, he told me everything about the club, it’s perfect. He told me about training camp, fans, staff and about the club, it’s very, very good.”
What’s interesting is that Fontas is currently out of contract with Sporting KC. This doesn’t mean he’s definitely coming back, but it’s a possibility. I speculated earlier in the year that Fontas made more sense to return since they could theoretically bring him back for less money than someone like Nicolas Isimat-Mirin who has an option that the team must either pick up or decline (though they could decline it and sign him to a lesser deal, but that hasn’t worked in the past).
This one remains to be determined, but it’s something worth watching.
Speaking of Salaries and Contracts
While it’s unknown if Fontas or Isimat-Mirin will be anchoring a backline behind Radoja, the soon to be 30-year-old defensive midfielder will be in KC for a bit. He’s signed a guaranteed three year deal through 2025 with an option for 2026. What he will make in MLS is up in the air, but the past is often predictive of the future.
Last year with Levante he made £832,000 which is about $966,000 USD. He had taken a pay cut with the move to Levante from Celta de Vigo, where he made £1,248,000 ($1.45 million) at his peak in 2019.
For comparison, Remi Walter (who absolutely will still be fighting to start somewhere in the midfield), made $800,000 in 2022. His backup, Uri Rosell, made $475,000. In 2021, Ilie Sanchez made $1,000,000 to mostly play defensive midfielder. It will be intriguing to see if Radoja makes more than Ilie or not as Sanchez was a cap casualty at that number. Radoja has a lot more higher level experience, but you never know how a player is going to transition to the physicality and pace of MLS.
Roster Fit — International Spot
Along with the announcement of the signing of Radoja came the inevitable news that he would occupy an international roster spot since he’s from Serbia and has “never been to the (United States).” So he definitely doesn’t have a green card.
What’s important about that is Sporting KC have a lot of international players already. The only one who is officially out of contract is the aforementioned Andreu Fontas, which may play against him returning. The team can also easily move on from Isimat-Mirin. However, that’s it as far as easy moves and they need to clear a spot for Radoja.
The other international spots are all filled by guys under contract for at least 2023: Gadi Kinda, Logan Ndenbe, Marinos Tzionis, Willy Agada and Erik Thommy.
The team can always trade for an international spot, but that’s usually most expensive building towards a season because most teams think they’ll be using theirs meaning they are only traded at a premium. Another option is SKC can acquire green cards, as they have in the past with numerous players like Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell, etc., which allows players to not fill an international spot.
However they deal with it, it’s something to consider and it is currently limiting who else they bring in this offseason too because more internationals would require more outgoing transactions, green cards or trades.
Roster Fit — Midfield Configuration
The addition of Radoja also adds more depth to the midfield. While we don’t know the salary of Nemanja, it’s safe to assume he’ll be relatively close to his last season’s salary, plus or minus a little bit. That would put him anywhere from the second highest paid midfielder to the fourth. Here are the current midfielders on the team from highest to lowest salaries (based on 2022 pay):
- Erik Thommy: $1,306,250
- Gadi Kinda: $918,000
- Remi Walter: $800,000
- Uri Rosell: $475,000
- Roger Espinoza*: $300,000
- Felipe Hernandez*: $119,153
- Cam Duke^: $93,000
- Jake Davis: $65,500
*Espinoza and Hernandez are out of contract.
^Duke has an option year for 2023 that has yet to be triggered.
Pay is not always a correlation to who should be on the field. Though if you look at the first three guys, I think most would pencil them in as the three most likely to start before the Radoja signing (though the Kinda/Thommy pairing might be missing bite). But then after that, Espinoza and Hernandez played far more impactful minutes than Rosell. So pay isn’t everything.
It seems to me that Radoja has a chance to be the team’s starting defensive midfielder. If you make me pick today, missing tons of information about who the team signs, re-signs, injury progress, etc., I’d guess it’s Thommy and Walter at the two number 8s and Radoja is behind them. Kinda may be healthy by the start of the season, but I wouldn’t bet anything on it.
Longer term, I’d guess it’s a rotation of those four, with Hernandez or Espinoza being next up if they are back. Walter can play any of the midfield spots and never seems to tire so he can cover if Radoja is the starter but needs a break. However, it’s incredibly early, so there is plenty of time to sort this out.
Looking at his career on FBRef.com, unlocks a few insights. First, he played for the club of his youth in Serbia, Vojvodina, for parts of three seasons before leaving to Spain. They finished 3rd or 4th each year he played for them and once he joined Celta they finished as high as 6th in La Liga (and as low as 13th). Levante kept tumbling down the table until being relegated this season. He’s been a regular starter most of his career but is definitely more of a defensive player (just two goals and six assists all-time in league play).
Looking at his last 365 days, with the caveat he’s in a large league on a bad team, he doesn’t have a ton of stats that leap off the page. One that does is his passing percentage on short passes is in the 89th percentile in Top 5 leagues. That should translate well to MLS which is definitely a lower level.
He’s also in the 98th percentile in shots blocked, which is better than not being in a position to defend, as Sporting’s midfield sometimes struggled with this season.
It’s always tough to find “highlights” of players that are more defensive in nature. In Nemanja Radoja’s case, it is nearly impossible. The only extended highlight reel is in Thad’s piece about the initial signing.
Radoja has only two career goals across his entire professional career (though one was against Barcelona). Video of both of those goals, including the Barcelona goal in 2019, is available. However, La Liga prevents us from embedding that video into our site.
- 2017 goal for Celta de Vigo (Fontas can be seen celebrating with Radoja)
- 2019 goal against Barcelona
Overall, La Liga makes the video tough to find. They are on ESPN+ now, but Radoja was on a bad Levante team that was defending under constant pressure in much of the content I watched, so I’m not sure that’s similar to what he’ll experience in Kansas City where they mostly play with the ball.
So I decided to dig further back into his career to his Celta Vigo days, where they were a firmly mid table team and competitive. I stumbled upon the highlights of a 2017 Europe League game between them and Manchester United. Radoja got the start and he’s on the highlights early with a beautiful ball at the 1:50 mark of the video below that should have led to a goal.
There isn’t much else of Radoja in that video other than him running back towards his own goal a lot as United controlled most of the game. Searching for other highlights led to lots of games against really big teams and he wasn’t featured (which at least means he wasn’t getting beaten on those plays).
Then I tried to watch full matches, but La Liga has moved around providers and the only matches available on ESPN+ were Levante matches which I’m not sure is representative of what he brings to a team that’ll have the ball more.
He also had the lowest number of appearances in a season since he became a professional. It’s honestly a little surprising he’s been out of contract since the summer and just signed with a team, which maybe means this was a summer deal that didn’t get over the line in time, as Sperry speculated on Shades of Blue.
Overall there is still a ton to learn about Radoja and him being with the team so early should hopefully make his transition into the team that much smoother, versus new players missing most or all of preseason in 2022.