In 2021, Major League Soccer introduced a new roster mechanism to encourage it’s clubs to invest in young players with the hopes of selling them overseas for big money. The U-22 Initiative. You can be excused for not knowing about it. First, Sporting Kansas City didn’t sign any players using that roster designation. And second, MLS is weird. It’s nearly impossible to understand all the ways player can be signed (Designated Players, Homegrowns, Targeted Allocation Money, General Allocation Money, etc.).
In 2022, Sporting KC shifted their focus and hit on this roster mechanism hard. They went from zero players that were in the U-22 Initiative category to the maximum allowable of three (some teams only get one, we’ve got more on that over here).
Now, as of this writing, the team’s haven’t made these designations official, but the three that are likely to fall into that category are Cypriot winger Marinos Tzionis, Belgian left back Logan Ndenbe and German center back Robert Voloder. All three players are young internationals and almost certainly had transfer fees attached to them.
- Marinos Tzionis: up to $2.26 million
- Robert Voloder: $1.98 million
- Logan Ndenbe: Between $1 and $1.5 million
With money like that being spent (reportedly), expectations are sure to be through the roof. Hell, before the Alan Pulido signing, the team had no more than $4 million in transfer fees in 20+ seasons before that. Pulido shattered that record and Gadi Kinda may or may not have hit it himself. Taking the highs above, that’s another $5.74 million in guys that are not expected to be starters.
That’s right, potentially backups. And backups to guys that were either Homegrown or came over on free transfers. Now, Ndenbe may be the exception to that rule, and long-term the hope is all these guys develop into starting caliber players, but that’s why we are here today.
Lower Your Expectations for 2022
When it comes to the contributions that Ndenbe, Tzionis and Voloder make in 2022, lower your expectations. If they hit and are all starting at some point this year because of their talent and not because of injuries, then that’s great. But outside of Ndenbe who is battling Ben Sweat (who is new and coming off an ACL injury), the other guys are behind entrenched starters. So entrenched that it’s 2021 SKC Golden Boot and MLS MVP candidate Daniel Salloi ahead of Tzionis and SKC Defensive Player of the Year Andreu Fontas ahead of Voloder.
Look no further than the rest of the league and the 2021 performances of the U-22 Initiative players. Don Garber said there were nearly 40 players in the league in 2021, though some of those were probably guys already under contract that otherwise met the qualification to lower their budget charge. There isn’t a definitive list of players from 2021 that I could locate (I did find this Reddit post), though teams are listing it on their roster pages this year already, so we’ll have a better idea going forward.
Looking at the list above, there aren’t any stars on it. There are some role players and a lot of players who didn’t get much time on the field. I expect Peter Vermes and Sporting KC will do better than the league average (with their fancy shadow teams and whatnot). But there will be bumps in the road.
All three guys are really young. Voloder and Tzionis are 20-years-old and Ndenbe is the “old man” at 22. Looking at the rest of the roster, there are some young guys expected to contribute in Felipe Hernandez (23) and Cam Duke (21), but even they are probably not starters. And they certainly aren’t locks, though they could fight their way in.
So even though the three U-22 guys have big fees, the other guys (Duke, Hernandez, Kayden Pierre, John Pulskamp) all have plenty of money spent on them developing their talent through the Academy (or the LA Galaxy’s Academy in Pulskamp’s case) and the second team.
Be patient with these players. We all hope they’ll be super successful and either long-term starters or sold for millions of dollars to big European clubs, but it almost surely won’t happen over night. Let’s just hope Vermes has found backups he trusts and doesn’t run the starters into the ground this season, like he did in 2021.
What are you realistic expectations (and over the top expectations) for each of SKC’s U-22 guys?