Sporting Kansas City has a fairly poor history with signing free agents in MLS. However, in the 2022-23 offseason, the rules have gotten a little better. No longer are all the players on the list at the very end of their careers (though there are still a bunch of those guys), instead they only need to be 24-years-old and have five years of MLS service to be a free agent. Because of that, there are actually a lot of quality guys on the list, many of which are already drawing interest around the league.
Before we get into who Sporting KC should look at signing, it’s worth looking at what their positions of need are. Luckily, The Blue Testament delivered those to you yesterday. The short version is this:
- Probably two to three centerbacks
- Forward Depth
- Right back if Zusi doesn’t re-sign
- Defensive midfielder depth (or a Uri Rosell replacement if he’s bought out)
Major League Soccer released their full list of free agents, which include guys out of contract or who had their options declined in the recent days. SKC have three players that meet the free agent definition:
- Graham Zusi
- Roger Espinoza
- Andreu Fontas
The team is currently negotiating with all three of them (hopefully all at reduced salaries). Now let’s get to who should be considered as a potential target (outside of these known ones), knowing of course, they can’t (and shouldn’t) sign all of them. We’ll break it down by position, since that’s how we did the area of need piece yesterday.
Alexander Callens (New York City FC)
2022 Salary: $814,000
Callens is a 30-year-old left-footed CB who is a Peruvian International (though he doesn’t occupy an international spot). While Sporting KC have at least Robert Voloder and possibly Fontas, as left-sides CBs, Callens is one of the premier free agents in this crop of players. It’s likely he’ll want a raise, but SKC freed up money by declining the option of Nicolas Isimat-Mirin.
He scored five times for NYCFC in 2022, which would be nice for Sporting to have a CB who can get onto the end of corners and set pieces. He also ranks in the 99th percentile for CBs for non-PK expected goals + assists according to FBRef.com. Additionally he’s in the 97th percentile for progressive passes, 90th in touches in the opponents box and 89th in pass completion percentage.
His numbers dip a bit in defense, but that could be because NYCFC play with the ball and aren’t defending as much. Then again, it could be a red flag. If he absolutely can’t play the RCB role, I’d pass on him unless Fontas isn’t brought back.
Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls)
2022 Salary: $1,080,000
The other premier CB in the free agent class is currently in Qatar with the USMNT. He’s also 30, also an attacking threat (four goals in 2022) and is a fantastic presence in the air (91st percentile in aerials won).
However, it’s rumored he wants a Designated Player deal. If that’s the case, then absolutely don’t sign him. If his salary demands come back to earth, I wouldn’t rule it out.
He barely played in 2021 after a serious injury but returned to form in 2022. He’s less of a fit for SKC because his pass completion percentage is in the 17th percentile for CBs. He would be asked to play much different for Sporting than for RBNY. Much more like he plays with the USMNT. The World Cup will be a good barometer of if he can play that way. The problem is, if he can, his price will go up and I doubt Sporting take a look. A classic catch-22.
Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)
2022 Salary: $900,000
It’s sort of wild how hard it is to find good CBs and that three of them hit free agency at the same time (though their SKC positional fit is up for debate). Hedges is a little older (32) than the others on the list and is already drawing interest elsewhere, including FC Cincinnati who declined the option of former United States National team CB Geoff Cameron.
Now that it's out... Sources can confirm FC Cincinnati are in talks with free agent center back Matt Hedges, who visited Cincy today, but no deal is reached yet. Other clubs interested as well.— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) November 17, 2022
Hedges, 32, is FC Dallas all-time club leader in appearances. https://t.co/nATdCMvEnQ
Part of me wants Hedges just to poke at Dallas. Then again, he’s aging, expensive and just in the 67th percentile in pass completion percentage (84.7%). I’m talking myself out of it the more I write.
For a closer look at the CB comparisons, here are some stats from FBref comparing these three with Fontas and Isi.
Erik Hurtado (Columbus Crew)
2022 Salary: $84,000
In the two seasons since Hurtado left Sporting KC, he hasn’t had much of a chance on the pitch. He scored three goals in just 1,005 minutes, all of which came last year with Columbus. There is some question if he would be welcomed back as he previously refused to be vaccinated which caused CF Montreal to trade him to Columbus and at one point Sporting were 100 percent vaccinated.
If he’s willing to come back, he would make perfect sense as a third striker (behind Pulido and Agada). He works really hard and is a capable goal scorer off the bench. In his two seasons in KC he scored seven times in 1,197 minutes of league play.
Just a quick reminder, Khiry Shelton got a three-year extension (with a fourth year option) after 1,407 minutes in 2022 with just a single goal in the league (I know, I know, he supposedly does other things besides scoring).
Hurtado is 32, but if he can come off the bench and score and doesn’t mind being the third CF option, I’d sign him. Plus he’s really cheap. It really comes down to where Vermes sees Shelton playing too.
Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (New England Revolution)
2022 Salary: $647,860
This is probably unlikely, just like Derrick Ettiene Jr., who we tossed out as a candidate but already appears to be on the move. Tajouri-Shradi is a savvy veteran and maybe wouldn’t want the role as 3rd or 4th winger on this team. And he may be too much money with so much already being spent in the attack by KC.
The Libya international doesn’t require an international roster spot and will turn 29-years-old at the end of March. He had a career low in appearances in 2022 but still managed two goals in just 167 league minutes. Over his five year MLS career, while never being a consistent starter, he has 26 goals and five assists. Again, probably too expensive, but worth a look.
Right Back (if Zusi doesn’t re-sign)
Anton Tinnerholm (New York City FC)
2022 Salary: $800,000
I really don’t see a world where Zusi doesn’t come back, but if he doesn’t and you aren’t sure that Kayden Pierre is ready to be the man, then Tinnerholm would be a good pickup. He’s a little costly and he missed much of 2022 with an injury, which is likely why he’s not on NYCFC anymore. But in the four years before that, I’d say he was the best right back in the league.
He does turn 32 in February, so he’s not spring chicken. But before this injury, he’s been good for 22 or more starts each year and over 2,000 minutes in each. That’d still leave room for Pierre to develop and suddenly you’d have one of the leagues best attacking right backs on the team. Then again, offense isn’t what this team needs and someone more defensively sound may be preferred.
[Update: Whoops, Tinnerhold already signed overseas!]
Kyle Duncan (New York Red Bulls)
2022 Salary: $293,610
This would be a trickier move because the former RBNY Homegrown was only back in MLS because of a loan from KV Oostende in the Belgium first division. He’s only 25 and it appears his loan expired and he’s set to return to Belgium. He is a really solid defender, consistently making timely tackles and blocks. His passing leaves something to be desired, but that could just be a system thing.
While he’s technically a free agent, it would require another loan (or purchase) from KV Oostende, which I doubt is something KC would be interested in doing as they’ve never been a loan heavy team.
Ryan Hollingshead was probably my dream RB option as he’s consistently one of the leagues best, but he re-signed with LAFC.
Jhegson “Sebas” Mendez (LAFC)
2022 Salary: $636,750
Sebas has been a rotational piece at d-mid for Los Angeles FC after coming over from Orlando City and is currently in Qatar representing Ecuador in the World Cup. Importantly, he wouldn’t take up an international roster spot, which is critical because Sporting are dangerously low on them.
Mendez is only 25 and would fit into the midfield from a passing perspective because he was in the 95th percentile in passing percentage and 99th in progressive passes last year. He hasn’t often had to play in a single pivot, so I’m not sure if he has that tool in his bag. But he’s a more physical presence than anyone playing that spot for KC, which would be a nice option to have. He’s also in the 99th percentile in blocks and 85th in clearances.
Comparing him to Remi Walter, he beats him on every single defensive stat on a per 90 basis with the exception of middle third tackles (and that’s just barely). So he’d definitely be a more defensive option that still has good progressive passing.
The only way this works monetarily is if SKC buy out Rosell, because Mendez is just too expensive otherwise. If he has that single pivot ability, then this seems like a really good option.