After finishing 12th in the Western Conference and 22nd overall, Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City will need to refresh to compete in 2023. The big question is: how can Sporting best compete in a league where LAFC has three DPs – none of which are Gareth Bale or Georgio Chiellini? The same league where Riqui Puig is playing for the LA Galaxy without occupying a Designated Player spot, even though he made $5 million per year at Barcelona. As the preseason looks to kick off, Sporting KC has little wiggle room in their roster build. Where some fans wanted a major overhaul, there are instead subtle tweaks and selective additions.
However, the reality of the 2023 roster doesn’t mean that we can’t discuss alternative approaches and philosophies on roster building. Sporting KC’s ownership and Vermes have shown a willingness to take big swings. Alan Pulido is still the 15th biggest incoming transfer in league history and the team recently tried to sign Cristiano Ronaldo for a presumably ridiculous sum of money. That said, Kansas City still faces recruitment hurdles that other markets don’t.
Traditionally, Sporting Kansas City has relied on European players in their mid-late twenties. The dynasty was built through the draft and the team has matriculated a number of players from the academy to the first team, but Peter Vermes and Brian Bliss have tended to focus on established veterans from Europe. Guys like Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Andreu Fontas, Cristian Lobato, Ilie Sanchez, Luis Martins, Remi Walter, Gerso Fernandes, and Johnny Russell have all shown varying levels of success in Kansas City. Even South American players like Diego Rubio and Felipe Gutierrez earned their stripes in Europe before moving to MLS.
Vermes has frequently commented on the difficulty with getting players to Kansas City. Once players arrive and tour, closing the deal seems to be easy. But convincing a soccer player from France or Spain to come to a midwestern city they may not know is certainly more of an uphill battle than Sporting’s MLS counterparts in major metropolitan areas.
The question you’ve likely heard me ask on multiple episodes of the Shades of Blue podcast, is whether Sporting KC should consider revisiting their transfer strategy and look for market inefficiencies to better compete with clubs like LAFC, Miami, Seattle, and Toronto? There’s more than one way to build a roster to compete in this league. Given all of the constrictions of the salary cap, homegrown territories, and all of the other silly rules MLS imposes, teams like Sporting KC are required to get creative.
Using homegrown players like Cam Duke and Felipe Hernandez will be key to developing inexpensive depth. The MLS Super Draft is relatively meaningless, but there are still talented players to be found in the draft. That said, when it comes to rebuilding the roster, it might behoove Brian Bliss and Peter Vermes to look for markets that are largely ignored by their counterparts in the league. The same team that found Latif Blessing ought to be able to do it again.
According to Transfermarkt, MLS has 760 players split among the 29 teams. Of those 760 players, 428 (56%) are foreign. Of that group, 51 players are Canadian, 30 are Brazilian, 32 are Argentinian, 28 are Colombian, and 16 are Mexican. It’s clear that most MLS teams are mining South America for dynamic playmakers. Everyone dreams of a Brazilian with dazzling foot skills or the human highlight machines from Argentina. It is also clear that players from African and Asia are underrepresented in MLS.
As we all know, Sporting Kansas City found Latif Blessing in 2016 after he won the Golden Boot in the Ghanian Premier League. His time in Kansas City was mixed, but some incredible highs and a few lows before being selected by LAFC in the expansion draft a year later.
Sporting KC tried to follow that same recipe in 2019 when it signed Abdul Rwatubyaye from the Rwandan Premier League. The team has taken a number of flyers on players from Africa with the
Swope Park Rangers Sporting KC II. The 2022 roster featured Ghanian players Joseph Addo Tetteh, Paul Attah Agyei, Tijani Fatah, and Rauf Salifu. Unfortunately, none of them found footing to stick with the organization. Sporting KC has clearly dedicated time and effort to scouting Ghana, but there are other African leagues and markets to mine for talent.
After the 2022 World Cup, FIFA has ranked Morocco 11th, Senegal 19th, Tunisia is ranked 30th, Cameroon 33rd, and Nigeria 35th. Simply put, there’s talent in Africa but a relatively small percentage of them ply their trade in the United States.
The Senegalese national team, by and large, plays in the big five leagues of Europe. Signing any Lions of Teranga is unlikely, but it's clear that Senegal produces talented players and could be a place for Sporting KC to look for reinforcements. Most of the Senegalese players playing for the U-23 or U-20s aren’t playing in Big 5 leagues in Europe. Sporting can certainly offer wages in excess of the Senegalese domestic league and probably comparable with Ligue 2 or the Belgian Jupiler league.
The majority of the Tunisian national team plays in Africa and the Middle East. Players like Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhame should be targets for Sporting KC. Romdhame is a 22-year-old central midfielder who is valued at $2.7m and is currently playing for Esperance Tunis. For the 2021-21 season, the most expensive outgoing transfer of Ligue Professionnelle 1 was $723,000.
Keeping transfer fees low is a key for MLS clubs to bring in new players without creating issues with the Designated Player tags. Gadi Kinda is an important player for Sporting Kansas City, but he’s only on $850,000 per year in salary. The salary would put Kinda over the DP threshold, but he could be easily bought down with GAM or TAM. What forced Sporting KC to tag Kinda as a DP was the high transfer fee they paid. Mining leagues like the Tunisian top flight could potentially create an avenue for Sporting KC to bring in talented, up and coming players or internationals, without having to break the bank and skew their salary cap.
Nearly the entire Egyptian national team plays in the domestic league. The most valuable player in the Egyptian Premier League however, is Aliou Dieng, a defensive midfielder from Mali. Dieng is valued at $3.5 million and has 25 caps and two goals for the Mali National team. Only three transfers from the Egyptian top flight in the 2021-22 season broke the $1 million mark.
While the African transfer market is largely untapped by MLS, the Japanese and South Korean markets are essentially ignored. Only one Japanese player, Yuya Kubo, plays in MLS, while no South Korean players are in the league. According to FIFA, Japan has the 20th best national team in the world, with South Korea listed at 25th. The Japanese national team has a mix of players who play in top European leagues as well as the J1 league.
South Korea’s national team is led by superstar Heung-Min Son. A handful of the remaining starting XI play for various teams in the European top flights, but a substantial number of players are called in from Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Ulsan Hyundai. The South Korean transfer market is more robust than many of their CAF counterparts, but there are still potential deals to be found. Kyu-hyun Park is a 20-year-old left-back who was sold from Ulsan Hyundai to Weder Bremen of the 2. Bundasliga for $200,000. He’s a former South Korean U-19 international.
This market has paid dividends for MLS clubs before. Seattle Sounders signed Kim Kee-Hee on a free as a TAM centerback in the 2018 season. He made 59 appearances for Seattle and was a mainstay in the defense that won MLS Cup 2019. Hwang In-Beom was signed by Vancouver as a Young DP in 2019. He had limited success, like most Whitecaps, but has subsequently found himself excelling with Rubin Kazan and Olympiacos in Europe.
The club’s ambitions with their attempt to sign Cristiano Ronaldo have changed the conversation about how this club is willing to spend money and recruit. However, the roster rules of MLS still require teams to be effective with signings outside of the Designated Player spots. Teams need great DPs and TAM level players to compete for trophies, but they also need strong depth across the pitch to help manage workload on the players and navigate potential injuries. Recruiting players from Africa and Asia bring challenges and complications - namely travel - but allow Sporting Kansas City to find talented players at a lower acquisition cost.
Moreover, the club needs to continue to evaluate its business philosophy as it relates to player recruitment. Atlanta United has shown the pros and cons of making splashes for young players in an attempt to flip them for profit. For every Miguel Almiron, they’ve had an Ezequiel Barco. That said, signing players in their late 20s or early 30s means the organization is unlikely to recoup much of anything on their investment. Changing the recruiting strategy to find the next Latif Blessing would allow Sporting to find contributors on the pitch, but also a player that could be flipped for a profit and additional reinvestment into the roster at a later time.