In Major League Soccer, the offseason can be quite short. Particularly if your team makes a run in the playoffs, like Sporting Kansas City did this year. MLS Cup just wrapped up on December 9th and Sporting KC are set to report to preseason, this time in Florida, on January 13th.
With the start of preseason just a couple weeks away, the debate for what signings SKC still need to make and who falls where on the depth chart is already well under way. The team currently has 26 of their 30 roster spots filled and more moves are likely to come in the new year. Until then, let’s go position by position with our “way too early” look at the Kansas City depth chart.
Starter: Tim Melia
Depth: John Pulskamp, Ryan Schewe (unsigned)
While there is still a third goalkeeper to be added, 2023 made the pecking order pretty clear at GK. If Tim Melia is healthy, he’s the man. Pulskamp split starts with now departed Kendall McIntosh when Melia wasn’t healthy, and he is clearly who the team is looking at as the long-term option in net. I’d like to see more of Pulskamp personally with Melia in a contract year, but Tim isn’t letting go of that starting job without a fight (or another injury).
While unsigned at this point, first round draft pick Ryan Schewe out of Georgetown, seemingly has a shot to be the third goalkeeper. There are no goalkeepers currently signed to Sporting KC II, though there are a handful of keeps in the SKC Academy the team is high on.
Starter: Jake Davis
Depth: Kayden Pierre, Tim Leibold, Khiry Shelton?, Random Midfielder?
Jake Davis, out of literally nowhere, made the right back job his in 2023. So much so, Sporting KC were comfortable declining the option on club legend Graham Zusi. Hopefully Davis takes another huge leap forward in 2024 but he has to be seen as the front runner to start.
It’s all youth on the right too. Davis is 21 and his presumed backup, Kayden Pierre, is only 20. Beyond that, there are no more players who are regular right backs on the roster. Tim Leibold, who will be needed elsewhere, played a few minutes in a comeback attempt against Inter Miami last year. Khiry Shelton played some shaky minutes there but would probably realistically be third if Leibold is already on the field. Is this why Khiry is on the roster? Jack of all trades but master of none?
A dark horse to play right back could be any right footed midfielder on the team. It’s not a requirement to be right footed to play right back, but it does help. I believe Danny Flores is right footed, but I’m not certain.
Starters: Andreu Fontas, Dany Rosero
Depth: Robert Voloder/Robert Castellanos, Chris Rindov, Nemanja Radoja
Potentially the position of the most concern on the entire team has to be center back. At times, the back line was a disaster in 2023. Despite that, the five players signed to this position currently, are the five that ended the season there last year. Peter Vermes indicated the team was looking to add a center back and that also they were still in negotiations with Kortne Ford. Ford would definitely be no worse than third on the depth chart if he was signed.
As things stand, Andreu Fontas is the likely starter on the left and Dany Rosero is the first up on the right. I have Voloder and Castellanos both listed third because I think it depends on who is missing time. Voloder is left-footed and was seemingly signed to be the heir apparent to Fontas, but he hasn’t taken that leap yet. Castellanos hasn’t shown to be an MLS caliber starter, but he’s definitely first up in the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ situation and is behind Rosero on the right.
Rindov will hopefully take a leap this year after spending nearly every minute with SKC II in 2023. I also listed Radoja here because he’s capable of playing CB and if a long-term injury were to strike and the others couldn’t step up, he definitely could. If the team signs another defensive midfielder that fits well, Radoja could be as high as third on the CB depth chart. However, he’s much more valuable to this team at defensive mid.
Starter: Tim Leibold
Depth: Zorhan Bassong, Robert Voloder, Logan Ndenbe (injured)
With Logan Ndenbe having a torn ACL, he’ll miss at least the first half of the season. That ends what was a year-long position battle between him and Leibold before it even starts. Leibold is a capable starter and, when healthy, a top-quality contributor. He missed a lot of 2023, starting just nine games (17 appearances) for 869 minutes. If he was healthy, who knows if Ndenbe even gets his chance to be the star he was down the stretch.
Behind Leibold is new signing, 24-year-old Bassong. Zorhan has bounced around the world, including a couple seasons with CF Montreal in MLS, before landing a one-year deal with Kansas City. The former teammate of Ndenbe in their youth days finds himself likely on a short-term stay until Ndenbe is healthy unless he can impress. Competing for the backup job could be Voloder, who is primarily a left-sided CB but put in time at LB with all the injuries at the position last year.
Starter: Nemanja Radoja
Depth: Remi Walter, Danny Flores, Felipe Hernandez
This is yet another position that seems essentially set, in terms of a starter, in Nemanja Radoja. He was a revelation when healthy in 2023 and should be the starter come opening day. The issue is, his primary backup is Remi Walter and he’s just not a good fit for a single pivot midfield. When the team drops into a double pivot, it’s fine because he has cover when he rushes off to do all his running. However, SKC seem mostly attached to running a single pivot.
The team very likely needs to sign another player here, though it’s possible Flores or Hernandez take a leap and claim that spot. Flores played this role for SKC II much of the year and the first team tried Felipe Hernandez out here in spurts, mostly in preseason. Who is currently third on the depth chart is wildly up for debate.
Dual #8 Midfielders
Starters: Erik Thommy, Remi Walter
Depth: Felipe Hernandez, Alan Pulido?, Johnny Russell?, Ozzie Cisneros, Danny Flores
The day one starters surely are going to be Erik Thommy and Remi Walter. Beyond that, this position lost three key contributors in Gadi Kinda, Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez.
Felipe Hernandez, who was no better than seventh on the depth chart at times last year, is suddenly the first guy off the bench. He looked very capable at times but then had his suspension and hasn’t even seemed to be quite the same. He’s still just 25 and signed for two more years, but help seems needed here.
After Hernandez, Ozzie Cisneros, who has never played an MLS minute, and Danny Flores, who has seen limited time, are the only other midfielders on the roster. Hopefully they are ready to take a leap, but it seems more likely someone else would play out of position, like Pulido dropping into the midfield and Willy Agada moving up top, before these unproven guys would start.
As of today, I’d say Hernandez is Remi’s primary backup and there is no clear backup to Thommy. Pulido or Russell could potentially play there, but Ozzie Cisneros is the most like-for-like replacement not starting elsewhere. It seems the team needs to make a signing unless they are very confident in their youth prospects.
Starter: Johnny Russell
Depth: Khiry Shelton, Alenis Vargas, Marinos Tzionis
Unless a massive Designated Player signing is made, Johnny is the man. And he still may be the man even considering that. A new player may take time to acclimate, and Russell is the captain.
For the first backup, I want to put Alenis Vargas, but I know Vermes. Shelton is no world beater, but you know what you are getting from him. For that same reason, I’d like to see Vargas show what he’s got. He was so explosive on SKC II last year and has only been playing soccer for four years, so he has so much room to grow. He’s fast, though he’s a little out of control at times. And he’s a goalscoring threat, which SKC has needed off the bench forever. Him and Agada coming on to close out games feels like it has the chance to create fireworks.
As for Marinos Tzionis, he’s never looked comfortable at RW. He seems destined for the left or to find his way to another club.
Starter: Alan Pulido
Depth: Willy Agada, Khiry Shelton, Stephen Afrifa, Alenis Vargas
Center forward is one of the few spots on the rosters that feels really deep. Alan Pulido, the team’s highest paid player, is firmly entrenched as the starter. But Willy Agada, especially after getting his surgery last season, feels like he should be a regular contributor in 2024. At just 24, he has the potential to be a star, and either be sold for a huge fee or become the day-in, day-out starter.
Third on the depth chart is wildly up in the air. Realistically, Vermes probably trusts Khiry Shelton above the others, but the ceiling is so much higher for Afrifa and Vargas. Afrifa will get a full preseason this year after electing to stay in college last year. And, though I think Vargas is best suited to the right-wing spot long-term, he played some very good soccer when he was forced to play CF for SKC II due to injuries.
If Afrifa and Vargas play well, Shelton can but taken off this portion of the depth chart entirely.
Starter: Daniel Salloi
Depth: Marinos Tzionis, Erik Thommy, Alenis Vargas?, All the Wingers?
Daniel Salloi is one of the most consistent players on Sporting KC. That feels wild to say after he had back-to-back weird years in 2019 and 2020, but he’s since emerged as a regular contributor who is able to stay healthy and available. He’s your unquestioned starter.
Behind him, Marinos Tzionis is probably next up, but he doesn’t get much of a chance to play because Salloi is so healthy and consistent. If Salloi needs a rest, he should be the next man up.
Outside of that, Erik Thommy was a wide left player before coming to KC, so he’s capable of moving out here when needed. Alan Pulido seems to have a tendency to drift left at times and I could see out there with Agada at striker. Frankly, all the wingers on the team can move to the left when needed, but I imagine Salloi and Tzionis will get nearly all the minutes here.
What is wild is this is the exact same lineup to play the last playoff game. And outside of a big signing or an injury, this is the lineup I’d expect to see on opening day in February. In the coming days and weeks, we’ll take a look at the biggest needs on the team.