The secondary transfer window for MLS teams closed a little over a week ago now, on August 4th. Sporting Kansas City for their part did their work early in the window, getting deals finalized for Willy Agada and Erik Thommy before the window officially opened. While Peter Vermes said late in the window that KC was still working on a deal, none got done.
One thing that has been talked about by fans as well as pundits in the league has been Kansas City’s lack of involvement with intra-league trades. In the piece, Matt Doyle throws out a number of recent trades that he felt would have worked for KC and a couple of them I agree with as well.
The question is though, why hasn’t Kansas City been move active in acquiring players via trade within the league? Obviously, it’s not the only way to acquire players within the league, and obviously not being successful in the trade market isn’t the only reason KC has struggled. But with a number of KC’s additions failing to hit recently, KC’s lack of involvement in the trade market is something to at least take a look at.
To first prove the point that not being involved in the trade market alone isn’t the reason KC is struggling, KC is one of three teams that haven’t acquired a single player via trade within the league. The two other teams are the Portland Timbers and New York City FC. For all three teams you have to go back to the 2019 season for the last time the teams acquired a player via trade.
So back to the original question, why hasn’t Kansas City been involved in player trades recently, because not only has KC not acquired players via trade recently, but they also haven’t traded many players away recently either. In the last three years, only two teams have traded away fewer players than KC’s two (Adrian Zendejas to Nashville and Jaylin Lindsey to Charlotte), Orlando City and Austin FC who have each traded away just one player.
I had my ideas on the main reason, but to back up my thoughts I went back and using MLS’s website and Wikipedia I took a look at every trade over the past four years that involved a player moving from one team to another. I took a look at what was exchanged in the trade and tracked what was traded. What I found confirmed my initial thoughts regarding why Vermes and Kansas City has started to shy away from acquiring players via trade within the league. It all comes down to what teams are trading away to acquire players and how that’s changed over the past few years.
First looking at the 2022 season, once the trade window opened at the end of the 2021 season there were forty-eight trades between MLS teams, three of those trades involved players being traded for other players or players being part of a deal to acquire another player. Of those forty-eight trades, almost 60% of the trades involved only allocation money being traded to the other team in exchange. When other things like sell on percentages, draft picks, players, international spots, etc. were included in the trade the number of trades increased to over 85% of those trades. That left only a handful of trades that involved players being traded for things other than allocation money.
With this year’s trades out of the way I went back another year and looked at the 2021 trades that involved players. There were only thirty-nine trades that I could find that year, and only one of those trades involved a player being traded for a player. Unlike 2022, 2021 actually had more trades involve only allocation money, with almost 63% of all trades for players only involving allocation money going the other way. As with 2022 though, around 85% of the trades that occurred in 2021 involved players being exchanged for at least allocation money, if not allocation money and something else. While the number of player for player trades were down, the number of trades that involved players being acquired for something other than allocation money or another player increased to 10% of all trades.
Continuing my trip back through the years I got back to the 2020 season which at first glance I wasn’t sure would be a fair representation of the trade window within MLS because of the pandemic shutting things down and limiting teams’ abilities to make moves. At the same time with the questions on international travel the trade market may have been seen as a better alternative to teams as there was only one fewer trade involving a player in 2020 than there was in 2022 with forty-seven trades involving players. Here though is where you start to see the change as unlike in the two most recent years where 85% of the trades have involved allocation money in some form, that number was under 70% in 2020. Unlike the last two years though where 60% of the trades on their own involved allocation money, just 33% of the trades in 2020 involved allocation money with 37% of the trades involving allocation money and something else being included with it, a dramatic change from the two years since. The number of trades that involved players only or things other than allocation money doubled from what it had been in the 2021 and 2022 season.
With the 2020 season being so weird because of the world situation at the time I went back one more year to 2019 to look at the trades that year as well. First, it was the last time Kansas City acquired players via trade from within the league, bringing in three players via trade, acquiring Erik Hurtado and Kelyn Rowe before the season via trade and then acquiring former Kansas City player, Benny Feilhaber via trade during the season as a season ending injury replacement for Rodney Wallace.
Overall, there were forty-nine trades for the 2019 season, and it had more trades that involved allocation money than in 2020 with close to 40% of the trades involving allocation money. Overall, the trades involving allocation money as any part of the deal accounted for less than 65% of the trades in 2019, five percentage points lower than 2020 and over twenty percentage points below the amounts for 2021 and 2022. The trades involving players only stayed relatively the same as it has throughout the four-year history I looked at, but the big jump in 2019 was the trades for things other than allocation money or players only. Those trades accounted for 30% of all the trades that took place in 2019. Of the forty-nine trades, fifteen of them involved things other than allocation money or players only being involved. That’s only two fewer than the next three years had combined in that category.
Over the past four years, there’s been a big change in how trades within MLS have been done, it’s gone from a league where the majority of trades for players involved allocation money, to the vast majority of trades involving allocation money. A league where the number of trades for players that don’t involve allocation money at all is shrinking. And I think those two things are part of the reason that Kansas City hasn’t been as involved in the trade market when acquiring players over the last few years. Vermes had made a history of “winning” trades within MLS, getting players for cheap and trading away players for good amounts of allocation money.
Vermes’ strategy over the time he’s been with the club when it comes to allocation money has been to utilize it on the players on the roster, bringing in players whose salaries would otherwise put them over the maximum roster charge and buying them down. It’s worked for an extended period of time for KC, especially when they’ve been able to acquire more allocation money from teams for players over the years. Over the past few years though, the way many teams are utilizing and desiring allocation money has changed. The trade market within the league has started to tilt more towards TAM being the main way of acquiring players. While in the past Vermes may have thrown in a draft pick or two, an international roster spot, and maybe a little bit of allocation money, now teams are wanting more straight allocation money for players.
That’s not to say Vermes hasn’t tried to acquire players via trade and has offered allocation money to acquire them. In fact, there’s zero reason to believe that Vermes hasn’t tried to acquire players via trade. The issue for KC right now seems to be that Vermes is still primarily working under the strategy of using his allocation money on the players already on the roster or bringing players in from outside MLS. Using it as a way to bring in players who are already in the league via trade seems to be lower on Vermes’s preferred use for allocation money.
I personally am still trying to train my mind for the way the league seems to be managing player trades now. For example, I look at some of the trades that have happened this year like Chinonso Offor to Chicago for at least $325,000 in allocation money, Jacob Shaffelburg for $225,000, or Sebastian Lletget for $600,000 and think teams overpaid. But then I have to tell myself that this is becoming market value for the players now. The days of teams landing a player like Justin Meram for $100,000 and a second-round draft pick look to be fading away.
It’s up to Vermes to adjust his player acquisition strategies within the league to continue to compete in the league for talent already in MLS. Obviously, you don’t have to make trades within the league, as NYCFC has shown having not made a trade to acquire a player in the last three years but being the defending MLS Cup Champions. But at the same time if you’re not successful in one area it puts more pressure on the team to make sure they hit on other player acquisition methods like foreign player acquisitions, homegrown signings, free agents, and draft picks.
Missing on multiple of those can put teams in a situation like Sporting finds itself in this year. He might have to pay what years ago would have seemed outrageous to pay for a player. A player that in years past Vermes might have gotten for a first round draft pick, and international spot, and maybe a tiny bit of allocation money. But the market has changed now, and it’s probably time for Vermes to take a longer look at his policies on acquiring players within the league.