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Why a Sporting KC Rebuild is Harder Than it Looks

To the fire Vermes crowd, change isn’t as easy as you make it seem. Let’s look at the details of what can and can’t be done to fix this team.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Portland Timbers
Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes looks on before the match against the Portland Timbers at Providence Park.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The voices are always there. On Twitter. On Reddit. On The Cauldron Facebook page. Even in the comments on this very website. Saying the only way to fix Sporting Kansas City is to fire head coach and sporting director Peter Vermes. And those voices only got louder with the unspeakable 7-2 defeat to the Portland Timbers over the weekend.

I get it. That’s an abysmal performance by a team that is having a downright awful season. It’s not entirely unjustified, though I personally don’t think it will happen. I’ve taken a harsh stance on the #FireVermes crowd in the past, particularly after a fairly successful 2021 season. However, that’s not what I’m here to do today.

Instead, let’s look at the practicality of a ‘total rebuild’ from a roster perspective. With or without Vermes at the head, there are things that will delay a rebuild. Let’s look at the roster rules, contracts and salary budget situation that makes wholesale changes pretty dang tough.

Current SKC Roster, Contracts and Options

A good starting point is looking at the roster. Here is the most known, up to date look at every player on the roster, when their contract expires, if they have option years and their known roster designations (Internationals, Designated Players, U-22 Initiative, etc.).

2022 Sporting KC Contracts

Player Position Status Joined Contract Expiration Option Years
Player Position Status Joined Contract Expiration Option Years
Graham Zusi RB - 1/15/2009 2022 2023
Tim Melia GK - 12/23/2014 2022 None
Roger Espinoza MID - 1/6/2015 2022 None
Daniel Salloi LW HG 1/13/2016 2022 None
Johnny Russell RW DP 1/31/2018 2023 2024
Andreu Fontas CB INT 8/8/2018 2022 None
Cameron Duke MID HG 7/18/2019 2022 2023
Felipe Hernandez MID HG 8/30/2019 2022 None
Khiry Shelton FWD - 12/9/2019 2022 2023
Alan Pulido CF INT-DP 12/10/2019 2023 None
Ozzie Cisneros MID HG 1/20/2020 2024 2025
Gadi Kinda MID INT-DP 1/23/2020 2023 None
John Pulskamp GK HG 2/24/2020 2025 2026
Kendall McIntosh GK - 12/12/2020 2022 2023
Remi Walter MID - 12/22/2020 2023 2024
Nicolas Isimat-Mirin CB INT 2/3/2021 2022 2023
Kaveh Rad CB HG 4/5/2021 2022 2023, 2024
Kayden Pierre RB HG 5/4/2021 2024 2025
Jake Davis MID HG 8/19/2021 2023 2024
Ben Sweat LB - 12/20/2021 2023 2024
Uri Rosell MID - 12/21/21 2023 2024
Kortne Ford CB - 1/14/22 2022 2023, 2024
Logan Ndembe LB INT-U22 1/14/22 2024 2025
Robert Voloder CB INT-U22 1/19/22 2024 2025
Marinos Tzionis FWD INT-U22 1/24/22 2024 2025
Nikola Vujnovic CF INT-Loan 2/15/2022 2022 Purchase

Who Could be Gone After 2022

Out of Contract: Daniel Salloi, Andreu Fontas, Tim Melia, Roger Espinoza, Felipe Hernandez, Nikola Vujnovic (loan with purchase option)

2023 Option Years Only: Graham Zusi, Cam Duke, Khiry Shelton, Kendall McIntosh, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin

2023 & 2024 Options: Kaveh Rad, Kortne Ford

As you can see from the above lists, there are quite a few guys the team can move on from. There are older players (Zusi, Espinoza, Melia), divisive players (Shelton, Salloi, Fontas) and promising younger players who are still working toward their potential (Hernandez, Duke).

Big Spots that Can’t* Go

But there are a lot of guys not listed above. Namely all three Designated Players and all three U-22 players. The positions where endless acquisition costs aren’t an issue^ are locked up through at least 2023.

All three Designated Players (Alan Pulido, Gadi Kinda and Johnny Russell) are guaranteed through 2023. All three U-22 Initiative players (Marinos Tzionis, Robert Voloder and Logan Ndenbe) are guaranteed through 2024**.

*There is an ability to buy out one player in the offseason. Basically they can pay someone to go away to free up that roster spot and designation. It would be costly, of course, but it’s possible.
^Technically one of the DPs has to be a Targeted Allocation Money level DP (Russell) or the team cannot have three U-22 players. Alternatively, they could use a Young DP slot and spend unlimitedly.
**It’s possible there is a guy on this U-22 list who could slot into a TAM spot if the team wanted to get another U-22 guy, but there are too many unknown variables).
BONUS NOTE: Gadi Kinda may not be a DP next year, it’s very confusing.

Guys Not Going Anywhere

In addition to the six ‘big’ roster spot guys above, there are a handful of other players guaranteed through 2023 that you may or may not want on your rebuild. The following guys are guaranteed through at least 2023:

Remi Walter, Jake Davis, Ben Sweat, Uri Rosell

I doubt anyone wants Remi gone, but there are plenty of people I’m sure that don’t see the other three in their rebuild, fair or not. Add to that list the guys who are guaranteed through 2024 or beyond:

Kayden Pierre, Ozzie Cisneros, John Pulskamp

Now you can see that, there are 13 guys, on a roster of up to 30 players, who are basically staying regardless of what you think of them.

What About Selling/Trading Guys?

Now there is one other caveat on the 13 locked in guys. Besides the ability to buy out one player, Sporting KC could trade players within the league or sell players abroad. There would no doubt be buyers for the best assets if the price were right. I think there is probably an MLS team that would take just about every player above (excluding if there are some unknown salaries that are massive), outside of maybe depressed assets like Ben Sweat and Uri Rosell and lower potential Homegrown assets like Jake Davis.

However, it’s probably a tough sell to move either of your DPs coming off knee surgeries (Pulido and Kinda), especially for Alan who’s salary makes him a true DP. Plus all the assets are a little depressed if SKC continue to play as bad as they are.

What About Salaries?

The 2022 MLSPA salary data hasn’t come out yet. At this point we’re working off of 2021 data, which leaves a lot of holes. Since the last salary release, Sporting Kansas City added Ford, Sweat, Rosell, Ndenbe, Voloder, Tzionis and Vujnovic. They also re-signed John Pulskamp and Johnny Russell. We have an idea on Russell ($1.6m) but everything else is just guessing (thought we know with the U-22 guys, they have to be at or under $612,500).

An Exercise in Flexibility

So let’s imagine you start your rebuild. Whether you fire Vermes or not, here are the spots on the roster you can free up, assuming you let all the above players out of contract walk and decline all the guys on options after 2022:

  • International Spots: 3
  • Designated Slots: 0
  • U-22 Slots: 0
  • Senior Roster Spots: 8

That’s not a lot of spending power. Speaking of money, of the players you can release, we don’t know salaries for Vujnovic and Ford, but the other 11 guys would free up $5,239,416. That is likely slightly off as Espinoza and Zusi re-signed and presumably took pay cuts. Plus most of the other contracts probably included slight raises in them, so let’s call it a wash.

That represents just 37 percent of SKC’s 2021 total salary budget of $14,129,111. So while it’s not nothing, it’s not world changing, especially when you factor in the inability to pay anything above a tiny transfer fee.

Anyone who knows MLS though, knows the rules are very complicated and that 37 percent figure can be misleading. The three DPs only count for $612,500 each against the budget. Plus everyone else on the roster making over $612,500 (seven other players), are having either General Allocation Money (GAM) or Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) buying down their salaries. Speaking of GAM and TAM, we have very little clue as to how much SKC have stored up, over the default amounts they get each year.

All of this is to say, the budget is murky at best and it’s likely no transfer fees could be paid to help build out this roster, unless they were fairly small.

How Would you Rebuild, if at All?

There is a bit of a lack of transparency around how MLS budgets really work, since we don’t know how all the GAM, TAM and Garber Bucks are being spent. But there is some flexibility. Personally, despite the downright awful start, there is still about two-thirds of the season yet to be played and there is a long way to go in knowing who should stick around and who should go.

I think Peter Vermes has a very long leash for everything he’s done for this club and city. He has a strong excuse in losing two of his three Designated Players (imagine most any team without two of their best and most expensive players) for the year and he has strategically built this roster to be tied to him, good or bad, through the end of his contract in 2023.

I think, barring multiple disastrous games like the one against Portland, he’ll be back to see what he can do with a (hopefully) healthy cadre of DPs. Plus U-22 guys with a year in the league, and whatever other moves he drums up in the offseason or in the coming summer transfer window, during which he said he’d be active.

That said, what would you do? I look forward to a healthy, and friendly, discussion in the comments.