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Constructing Sporting KC's 'Ghost Roster'

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With Sporting currently residing in last place in the West and second-worst in the league in xG differential (per American Soccer Analysis), fans have scrutinized recent player acquisitions as the full depth of the squad is tested. Intra-league moves for players haven't pushed the needle. Foreign transfers have struggled to make an impact, and several have already left the club. The recent transfer record is a cause for concern for sporting director Peter Vermes and technical director Brian Bliss.

But what about the players not on this roster? The club has some young homegrown and U22 players, as well as a stable of older players, most on high salary cap hits. Where is the 'middle section' of players? MLS vets, at or around their prime, and on relatively low salary cap hits are the core of every good MLS club. What about the next cohorts of homegrown players from the academy? Let's see what another 2022 SKC roster might've looked like, had recent roster building gone differently.

Draft Picks

The SuperDraft is not a guaranteed player acquisition mechanism, but it consistently produces quality MLS starters and US/Canada internationals. Despite building a decade of success off the draft, Sporting has had little success since 2015, cutting out a key part of roster building. Not every pick will be a success, and good players can be acquired by trading your picks, but it's worthwhile to see just who Sporting passed up in the last few years.

2019

Sporting selected Kamar Marriott, a central defender from Florida Gulf Coast, with its natural pick in the late first round. Marriott never appeared for Sporting or Swope Park Rangers, becoming a wasted draft pick months after being drafted. The next two center backs selected, both early in the second round, were Sean Nealis by the New York Red Bulls and Kamal Miller by Orlando City. They've both turned into two above-average MLS starters, plus athletes, and on very friendly cap hits. Miller is likely going to the World Cup with Canada.

2020

Sporting dealt its 2020 first round, along with $350,000 in allocation money, in the deal that brought Kristian Nemeth back to KC. After a poor 2019, they would've had the 6th overall pick, which New England used to select center back Henry Kessler, a starter for the Shield winning Revolution and a (limited) US international. A Generation Adidas player, he would've been off the salary budget for his initial contract. Nemeth scored nine goals over two years in his second stint with Sporting.

2021

Sporting traded its 2021 pick to Vancouver in the Erik Hurtado deal. That pick, the 23rd overall, was used on versatile fullback Javain Brown, Jamaican international who has played both left and right back for the 'Caps. Brown was off the senior salary budget for his first season and does not count as an international player. Hurtado scored seven goals in 28 appearances over two seasons in KC.

Trades

Before the 2019 season, Sporting traded forward Diego Rubio to Colorado in a three-way deal that netted midfielder Kelyn Rowe to KC. Rubio had been a rotational starter at striker with Khiry Shelton in 2018. Rowe was gone by August 2019, traded to Real Salt Lake for a 2019 international slot and bit of allocation money. Rubio would eventually become a starter with Colorado, including in its 2021 Western Conference-winning season, scoring 26 goals since his arrival. He is currently fourth-best among all MLS field players in Goals Added.

Prior to this season, homegrown right back Jaylin Lindsey was dealt to Charlotte FC for allocation money. Lindsey quickly won the Charlotte starting job and is fighting for a playoff spot right now.

MLS Machinations

Sporting has lost two key players to recent Expansion drafts. LAFC selected Latif Blessing, a utility forward for Sporting, and quickly converted him into a destroying, direct #8 in Bob Bradley's 4-3-3 that pressed to regain and possess the ball. He has played 130 matches so far with LAFC and has been the subject of transfer speculation to Brazil. Not much could be done to protect him since he had a recently acquired green card, but another player on a low salary number lost.

Left back/midfielder Jimmy Medranda was selected by Nashville SC ahead of their 2020 season. He only made one appearance with the club, returning from injury, before being placed on the trade market, eventually making way to Seattle in October 2020. Jimmy has made 33 appearances so far for the Sounders.

Also lost to expansion draft machinations was winger Tyler Pasher, who only played once for Sporting (as a left back) in 2017. He was traded to Atlanta for [nebulous expansion draft reasons here], would become a USL-leading scorer as a forward for Indy Eleven, and now is a rotational defensive winger for Houston. He has six goals with the Dynamo on a low budget charge.

Longtime SKC defensive midfielder Ilie Sanchez left via free agency after Sporting declined his contract option. Ilie has slotted right into LAFC's 4-3-3, playing 18 matches already as LAFC lead the Shield race by several points. KC replaced him with Jose Mauri, already departed from the club, and Uri Rosell.

Academy Players

Sporting has lost several academy products who had limited opportunities to make an impact. Striker Wilson Harris played only 178 minutes for the senior side after winning USL Young Player of the Year. He now leads the line for USLC power Louisville City, scoring eight goals thus far in the season. Forward Tyler Freeman was cut at age 19 for unspecified reasons after not playing an MLS match with SKC, landing with Loudon United. He has four goals so far with DC's reserve side.

Other talented academy players didn't even sign MLS deals. Winger Mataeo Bunbury, leading scorer for SKC II, recently left for Birmingham Legion, and US U-20 midfielder Rokas Pukstas left in 2020 for the Barca (AZ) Residency and then Hajduk Split. Left back Isaiah LeFlore recently left for the reserve side of SC Braga in Portugal.

Where does this leave Sporting's roster?

These roster decisions were not obvious errors when they were made, and we shouldn't expect a 100% hit rate for any front office. Many of these deals netted MLS players or cap room and allocation money for foreign signings. But those signings have largely not worked out, and they've cost SKC vital roster-building avenues and proven MLS players like Rubio and Ilie. Nemeth, Rowe, Hurtado, and now it seems Rosell and Sweat have been insufficient as cogs in Vermes' system. Mauri, Puncec, and Vujnovic are already gone. The academy pipeline (admittedly hit very hard by COVID) has seemingly dried up. Not every one of the players mentioned above would be a surefire success playing for KC now, but the mass of probabilities say Sporting would have several more quality players to whether this season with.

There are still success stories, but they're not enough. Homegrown players Felipe Hernandez, Cam Duke, and now Kayden Pierre have been getting minutes. Daniel Salloi is a fantastic MLS winger. We know Vermes and co. can develop players if given the chance and raw material, and can also fit underused or misused MLS players into his system to get the most out of them. Vermes has also adapted his system to the fits of the roster.

So what's the issue? Sporting director Vermes and Bliss seem to be robbing manager Vermes of the material to work with. New acquisitions are (mostly) established players in their mid-to-late twenties on heavy cap hits and often international slots. Many of them don't match that salary hit, in on-field quality. Still missing is that 'middle section' of domestic players and cap bargains that Vermes built his original core with. When is the last player trade that Vermes has 'won'? Where are the draft picks? Why didn't Vermes acquire and develop the raw material in Brandon Vazquez, or Djordje Mihailovic, or Auston Trusty, like he did with Benny Feilhaber and Ike Opara? Vermes' early model of player acquisition still works in MLS in 2022. Just look at last year's Colorado Rapids and New England Revolution, or this year's CF Montreal and Nashville SC. Those clubs are doing Sporting KC better than Sporting KC. Until that's fixed, the roster will continue to careen downward.

This post created by a member of The Blue Testament community. Opinions are all their own.