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Debating the Validity of New Sporting KC Left Back Signing Tim Leibold

Two writers take sides and make the case why this move does (or doesn’t) make any sense.

SV Werder Bremen v Hamburger SV - Second Bundesliga Photo by Mario Hommes/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

On January 12, Sporting Kansas City announced the signing of 29-year-old German left back Tim Leibold. The signing set off quite the debate in The Blue Testament’s Slack channel, so we’ve decided to bring the debate to you, our loyal readers. David, who is known for being one of the most opinionated people on the planet [Editor: David wrote that line!] is not a fan of the signing. Chad is significantly more pro-Leibold. Let’s get to the debate!

David Greenwald: My first issue with this signing is that one of the oldest teams in the league isn’t getting any younger. According to Transfermarkt, Sporting KC clocks in as the oldest team in the league at 27.6 years old. The business this offseason included re-signing 36-year-old Roger Espinoza, 36-year-old Graham Zusi, and 33-year-old Andreu Fontas.

In addition, the club added 29-year-old Nemanja Radoja. The MLS regular season will have 34 matches; the Leagues Cup will have a minimum of two matches; and the US Open Cup will return with at least one guaranteed match. What does this mean? A ton of games and a lot of wear and tear on the body. Tim Leibold is closer to the end of his career than the beginning and tore his ACL in October 2021. Since blowing out his knee, he’s played a total of 126 minutes, with the longest stretch being a 65-minute start against Dusseldorf in September 2022.

1. FC Nuremberg - Hamburger SV
26 October 2021, Bavaria, Nuremberg: Football: DFB Cup, 1. FC Nürnberg - Hamburger SV, 2nd round at Max Morlock Stadium. Hamburg’s Tim Leibold (M) is carried off the pitch injured and has his hands in front of his face.
Photo by Daniel Karmann/picture alliance via Getty Images

Sporting Kansas City needs to get younger and put trust in players to work through growing pains. The U-22 initiative was created to incentivize teams getting younger players into the league. There will be a day when Peter Vermes can’t run Roger and Zusi onto the pitch for 1,800 minutes per season and they need capable replacements.

This is a long-winded way of saying that we now have a 22-year-old left back (Logan Ndenbe), a 31-year-old left back (Ben Sweat), and a new signing who turns 30 at the end of the season (Leibold). Not the profile of player I’m looking for to refresh the squad.

Chad Smith: It seems I’m in an unenviable position to defend putting an old team on the field. I’m not exactly going to do that, instead I’ll take a different approach. I’m on the record over and over as saying I wanted to see Vermes “play the kids.” Instead, I’ll ask the question, does signing Tim Leibold make this team better? With a massive IF tied to his health, I think it does.

As David stated, the injury to Leibold was over a year ago. He was no longer starting at Hamburger not because he wasn’t good enough but because he simply was replaced while he was out injured. HSV got a new coach in Horst Hrubesch in the 2021 season, so he almost never got to see Leibold play. When he returned, the coach simply didn’t rate him.

It’s a football story as old as time itself. Remember Ilie Sanchez? Of course you do! He left Barcelona B for 1860 Munich and after a coaching change found himself on the bench. Does that mean he was a bad player? Of course not! He came to Sporting KC and had several good seasons before moving to LAFC and winning a freaking MLS Cup!

If PV and his scouts think that Leibold is an upgrade, then I think he makes the team better. I must add another caveat. It doesn’t make sense for Sporting KC to have two left backs who are internationals or three left backs overall. They need to be moving on from Sweat or Ndenbe or this will leave me puzzled.

Our colleague Thad Bell reported that Ndenbe is stuck overseas on visa issues [Editor: Ndenbe is now confirmed to be in camp with Sporting KC, but he could still be sold]. However, I theorized on the For the Glory KC podcast that it could be the cover for a sale. If they can take Ndenbe and flip him for a profit, Sweat can be the backup until his contract expires (he is out of contract after this season, though the club holds an option) and then someone can move up from the SKC Academy like a Nati Clarke or Coby Jones to be that future LB prospect. Less appealing, but acceptable is a trade of Sweat in the league. He played well down the stretch and could get a modest return and clear his senior roster spot. Ndenbe could still develop, and his cap charge is minimized because of the U-22 Initiative.

David: Chad brings up a point that is actually troubling. The business of the transfer market and roster building for a league that isn’t one of the Big Five of Europe. The U-22 initiative was created to incentivize teams to get younger assets to sell. Don Garber wants MLS to be a selling league because it allows teams to reinvest in their roster and infrastructure. I’m not opposed to selling Logan Ndenbe if we’re going to make a profit. Sporting Kansas City reportedly paid a transfer fee of 1.36 million Euros. If the club can flip him after only a year and make a profit? Sign me up.

Here’s where it becomes problematic: Sporting would be replacing the Belgian youth international with an asset that won’t get a return. Tim Leibold is never going to be sold for a profit. He didn’t require a transfer fee, but part of the club’s future success is making money that allows for a reinvestment into other players, scouts, and facilities. It’s simply bad business to have a roster full of guys who will either retire with you or leave on a Bosman [Editor: free transfer].

Chad: But winning is good business. While as a business, Sporting KC will look to flip players for profit, most fans care about winning and if Leibold helps bring a trophy, that’s what people will remember long-term. The track record of Leibold is far superior to Sweat or Ndenbe and I’d argue he makes this team better. Look at some recent stat lines in league play before he was injured.

  • 2019-20: 34 matches (all starts), 3,060 minutes, one goal, 11 assists
  • 2020-21: 29 matches (all starts), 2,583 minutes, four goals, three assists

Ben Sweat’s nine-year career has one goal and 13 assists (and six of them came in one season in 2017). Ndenbe has six seasons already under his belt and just two assists to his name.

Leibold will make this potent attack even better (hopefully he’s a good defender too as highlights tend to look for goals/assists).

I don’t disagree that he won’t be sold on for a profit. But he also arrived without a transfer fee. His salary is nothing to sneeze at if the rumors are true (potentially in the neighborhood of $700,000 at year), which isn’t ideal.

The other point I would argue is Ndenbe seemed far too similar to Kayden Pierre when they were on the field together. Leibold could be in the same vein, but in limited highlights he seemed to bring something different to the pitch.

Last, I’ll say that if you can sell a player and make money, you do it. Then there are those guys like Coby Jones and Nati Clarke who could be next in line for first team deals to hopefully also get sold on in the future for a profit.

David: Leibold’s track record is all over the place. Ndenbe’s first season with Sporting KC was as a 21-year-old. Leibold got a later start. As good as his form was from 2019-21, he had plenty of underwhelming years with his prior club, Nurnberg. Unfortunately, advanced statistics are not readily available for the 2.Bundesliga so it’s pretty difficult to actually determine whether the underlying metrics actually support his performance or if it was a fluke.

In the limited clips available online, Leibold ended up scoring a lot of his goals from a central position in the box during the run of play. I won’t profess to be an expert on Hamburg, but I don’t see any fullback in a Peter Vermes system free roaming into the box. I don’t know that Vermes will give him the freedom to roam but perhaps more importantly, I don’t know that he’ll be able to find the space when Pulido/Agada, Salloi, Johnny, and Thommy/Kinda are all going to be occupying similar space.

We’ve seen for years how Vermes’ fullbacks push everything wide with overlapping runs before hitting a cross into the box. Graham Zusi has more freedom of movement than his colleagues, but even he isn’t typically cutting into the box, but instead making an underlapping run or cutting in from a wide position.

But the attack is only half of the battle. The only advanced data available for Leibold is from his only season in the Bundesliga from 2018-19. The level of competition is certainly higher than MLS, but Leibold was worse against dribblers (worse 1v1 defending). Sporting Kansas City’s scored plenty of goals in the second half of the 2022 season with Ben Sweat playing significant minutes. However, the club couldn’t stop shipping goals. Does the increase in shot creating actions and goal dangerousness outweigh the need to improve on defense?

Well, one of the tactical issues Sporting Kansas City has faced with Graham Zusi’s marauding runs up the pitch is that he leaves a substantial amount of space in the channel for an opposing forward to run into on a counterattack. This tactical vulnerability was harder to exploit with Ike Opara there to cover, but once Ike left, Sporting struggled more. If Leibold is going to be making Zusi-ish runs up the left side, that will leave the fleet-footed Andreu Fontas to cover the space vacated by Leibold. In the four seasons since Ike left, the club has struggled to solve this tactical weakness.

But I want to talk about point #3. Roster construction. MLS has so many roster rules that clubs have to maximize every spot and use a level of ingenuity to succeed. A club like Sporting KC needs to find the advantages in the margins to compete with clubs like LAFC who are willing to splash massive amounts of money on the top of the roster. We’ve seen this in the past (Salloi as a homegrown), but if Sweat or Ndenbe are on the way out, it raises some roster construction questions. If neither Sweat nor Ndenbe are leaving, is it really a good use of the roster space to carry three left backs?

The league has a salary cap that requires players over the Designated Player threshold to be paid down with general allocation money (GAM) or targeted allocation money (TAM). These aren’t infinite resources, and it requires the club to make strategic decisions on how to maximize salary cap value. Additionally, MLS implemented the U-22 initiative, which allows clubs to sign up to three players under the age of 22 to lucrative contracts without hitting the salary cap in the same way as other senior players. Logan Ndenbe is one of the three U-22 players on the roster. If he’s staying but being relegated to a backup, is his 1.3 million Euro transfer fee and $350,000 annual salary a good use of the club’s money? That’s a lot of money to dedicate to a backup. If Ndenbe is on his way out, who is Sporting Kansas City bringing in as another U-22 player? Not maximizing those spots is a missed opportunity.

Chad: David, you raise some excellent points and I have to admit I’ve been playing a bit of the devil’s advocate. I too don’t agree with having three left backs on the roster and a bit of my argument is trying to rationalize things. If, in fact, all three players are staying, I’m super confused. That’s three guys on the senior roster, taking up two international spots and a U-22 spot. You only get 20 senior spots, eight internationals and three U-22s! (As for that potentially opened up U-22 spot, perhaps a defensive midfielder of the future?)

I have to think there is a further plan. Selling Ndenbe. Trading Sweat. Something! I’m going to fall back on a common trope of mine, “In Peter Vermes We Trust.” It’s a phrase that will make many readers cringe, but for my money, Peter has more hits than misses. This team feels like it’s built to win now (there is going to be a center back signing, right??). I’m a perpetual optimist (at least at the beginning of the season). Everything will work out fine! I’m sure of it!

TLDR for David’s Points

  • This move just doesn’t make a ton of sense.
  • Sweat was adequate and cheap as a backup. He’s got one season left and then the club could look for an upgrade.
  • Ndenbe was too much of an investment to relegate him to the bench and if the club is selling him, there are limited options on how or where the club could replace him.
  • Is Leibold an upgrade? Maybe. But is the value of the upgrade worth the cost? I’d say no.

TLDR for Chad’s Points

  • Leibold makes this team better right now (look at those stats!)
  • SKC surely are going to move Ndenbe or Sweat (hopefully at a profit!)
  • In Peter Vermes we trust!
  • Eh, I was playing devil’s advocate, but I try to be optimistic. Everything will work out!