The preseason is well underway with four of the five total games having been played. Sporting Kansas City’s record is 1-1-2 after their 2-2 draw with Real Salt Lake on Wednesday.
While the team has kept its cards close to its chest in terms of the lineups it’s shown and the simply the amount of footage available from preseason in general, regardless of who actually starts the regular season games (which we’ll dedicate plenty of time to), there are still some roster construction conundrums that need to be solved.
Let’s break down the three that are the most puzzling.
Why does Sporting KC have Three Left Backs?
Since the moment rumors started to emerge that Sporting Kansas City were looking at signing Tim Leibold, a German left back most recently in the 2.Bundesliga with Hamburger SV, it’s been a point of confusion. So confusing in fact, that David Greenwald and myself debated it pretty vigorously.
Peter Vermes seemingly indicated, as I prophesized he would, that when you can make your team better, you do it. Regardless of why Leibold is here, from a roster building perspective, it just doesn’t make sense. To quote fellow LB Ben Sweat, “it’s a little [bit] of a head scratcher.”
In Major League Soccer, teams get 20 senior roster spots that count against their salary budget. All three players at left back — Leibold, Sweat and Logan Ndenbe — are on the senior roster. To have 15 percent of those spots taken by guys that only play one spot is frankly weird. Not to mention that it potentially further buries Logan Ndenbe on the depth chart and he’s occupying a valuable U-22 Initiative spot (aka, SKC spent big-ish money to acquire Ndenbe).
That also doesn’t factor in all the salary spent at left back. Leibold is rumored to be making approximately $700,000 per season, which would make him one of the league’s highest paid fullbacks (we won’t know for sure for a few months). On top of that, Ndenbe made $396,125 in 2022 (only counting for $150,000 against the budget) and Sweat added another $200,000 in salary. That’s nearly $1.3 million on left backs. In a league with such a tight salary budget, it doesn’t make sense.
For that reason, Sporting KC need to move on from someone (unless as Ben Sweat stated, there are plans he hasn’t been told to move him to CB). With the money spent on Ndenbe, I’m of two minds with him. If someone wants to buy him now (the transfer window closed in most of the European countries already) and you can recoup your costs, you do it. However, if you’d be taking a loss, maybe you look to trade Sweat. He’s an MLS veteran on a palatable contract at a position that is one of the toughest to fill in global football.
Look at the revolving door of guys KC have had trying to replace Seth Sinovic — even when he was still here. Actually, let’s actually look at it. Since 2016, the team has had the following 12 left backs: Sweat, Ndenbe, Leibold, Sinovic, Luis Martins, Amadou Dia, Rodney Wallace, Jimmy Medranda, Cristian Lobato*, Yohan Croizet*, Tyler Pasher and Ever Alvarado.
*Sure, Lobato and Croizet didn’t play there much, but they tried them.
Long story short, maybe a needy team will come looking for someone like Sweat and Sporting KC should be listening.
Why are there are only Three Center Backs?
Admittedly, Peter Vermes has vowed to address this one saying, “I think you’ll see another person being signed to the team in that position.”
However, it’s still worth talking about. The team currently has Andreu Fontas, Kortne Ford and Robert Voloder as the only players on the roster whose primary position is CB. Of those players, Fontas and Ford have missed significant time with injuries in their career.
Outside of those three, PV has said Nemanja Radoja can play CB (though he hasn’t played anywhere in preseason due to injury) and Ben Sweat played in a back three before, but both of those options seem less than ideal (Sweat even said he tend to focus more on the attack than defense).
In 2022, and many seasons before, SKC would have five players to fill the two starting center back spots. Since 2022 ended, they moved on from Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and Kaveh Rad and have yet to replace them. Even if they do sign a player, that player will have missed the vast majority of preseason and a chance to integrate with the team.
With an exceptionally busy season upcoming with added games for the Leagues Cup, at least one signing needs to be made. Sporting KC only have two roster spots left, so one is probably all we are getting unless someone else is moved on from.
If the solution to only having three is adding someone like second round pick Chris Rindov, I think most will be underwhelmed. I have no clue how he is performing in preseason, but I believe if Sporting KC add a CB who could step in and start all the time if needed, that would go a long way towards them being contenders this season. Historically, second round picks aren’t those guys.
SKC’s Offseason Buyout
Earlier this week, MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle suggested that Sporting Kansas City use their one offseason buyout on Gadi Kinda.
“I left Gadi Kinda off the depth chart below (the graphic only goes four deep!) as he’s still injured,” said Doyle. “That’s feeling more and more like a problem they may have to solve via a buyout.”
I don’t fault the guys over at the league site for their takes sometimes because they are trying to cover 29 teams and we are covering one. But this hot take is one that I can’t get behind (he also suggested a Pulido buyout earlier in the offseason). First, if Sporting KC were going to do the buyout of Kinda, they should have done it last year so they could have added a Designated Player and salvaged their season (though, in Doyle’s defense, they would have had to do it before the season started and at that time they believed Kinda was coming back).
As for his health, I do get the feeling Kinda is further off than Pulido, but Vermes indicated they both have the potential to play in the season opener on February 25th. I don’t think Kinda will play (though I wouldn’t rule out Pulido, who is back in practice).
The other thing that came up with this is, I had assumed that Sporting KC had already used their one offseason buyout on Uri Rosell when he was waived. Well, it turns out, that’s not quite the case. Speaking to sources inside the team, Rosell did pass through waivers unclaimed, but Sporting Kansas City have until the roster compliance date on February 24th to decide if they want to use their one offseason buyout on him.
Here is where I’m stretching a bit on a “roster construction problem that needs solving.” If SKC don’t use the buyout, his salary ($475,000 in 2022) would count against their salary budget this season. I think Kansas City will use the buyout and get that money off their books (even if they ultimately paid it out to Uri).
I’m guessing, but can’t be certain, the only reason to wait is to see if they do in fact need to use the buyout on a more expensive player. The only way I can see that happening is if someone more expensive gets hurt and is going to miss the season, so you want that larger sum of money back in your budget to make a move. But again, this hypothetical injury (I don’t believe in jinxes, don’t put any future injuries on me!) would have to happen before February 24th.
I feel confident Uri’s contract situation will be solved. It doesn’t make sense to not use the buyout. They might as well get the roster space and the salary budget.
I feel decent about the center back situation getting addressed (let’s just hope the signing is big enough). Left back is by far the most puzzling.
I toyed with adding a fourth “problem,” stemming back to Khiry Shelton signing a minimum three-year extension (and option for a fourth year). Unless that’s at a huge pay cut, I’m still a bit stunned. However, with first round pick Stephen Afrifa not arriving, the team does need someone to be the third center forward behind Willy Agada and Alan Pulido (though I’m still not convinced that should be Khiry, Ozzie Cisneros plays there too).
Outside of these parts of the roster, assuming health (which is a huge assumption), Sporting Kansas City feel like real contenders in 2023. I hope and expect big things from them.