The timing was uncanny. On Monday, Chicago Fire FC Sporting Director George Heitz fired Manager Ezra Hendrickson less than an hour after New York Red Bulls Direct of Sport Jochen Schneider fired Manager Gerhard Struber and his Assistant coach Bernd Eibler.
These nearly concurrent announcements came a day after Sporting Kansas City defeated Western Conference leaders Seattle Sounders 2-1 in Seattle. The same Sporting Kansas City who had been tumbling into a 0-7-3 crater of a season. The thing is, Sporting’s current record, even after the win, is worse than both Chicago and New York’s. And over the last two seasons, Red Bulls have gained 62 points to Kansas City’s 46. Even Chicago has out totaled Kansas City 50-46. The only team worse than Sporting over the last two seasons is DC United (41 pts), who fired their coach last July and now best Kansas City by eight points in the current table.
Granted, the injury bug has bit Sporting hard many times since 2018, like happens to all teams. Thus, some of their top players have not always been available and there has been a drop off in performance. However, the drop off happening is not an expected drop in form because some backups are playing and some players are coming back from long-term injuries. A quality side has depth that can at least tread water until the top players return. One win in 11 and only five goals scored is not drop off, it’s damn near capitulation. Thus, a large finger must be pointed at roster construction. Going back farther, Sporting Kansas City is 12-27-10 since the last three matches of 2021, plus the 2021 playoffs.
How did Sporting Kansas City weaken so? Many theories have been written or illustrated in recent weeks and days by many, some seeming to think that the problems are relatively new. But the cause of Sporting’s demise is cumulative and has been coming for years. The pundits at mlssoccer.com and the scribes and podcasters at kcsoccerjournal.com (formerly thebluetestament.com) and at other outlets have long been sounding the alarm. This writing adds to the portfolio.
The date was September 5, 2018. I even wrote a commentary on the day’s announcement. In that commentary, I stated that Sporting Kansas City’s announcement sent three important messages:
To fans the message was… “We value commitment.”
To MLS… “We aren’t going anywhere.” (No pun intended.)
To current and future Sporting KC players… “This is how to be successful, and we are here to help you succeed.”
A Tectonic Shift
- Sporting Kansas City.
Eighteen wins. Eight draws. Only two home losses. Sixty-two points (18-8-8). Finishing at the top of MLS’s Western Conference. 65 goals for (4th most in MLS), 40 goals against (3rd least). The side was led by:
- a defense featuring the 2017 Goalkeeper of the Year Tim Melia and a center back pairing of stalwart Matt Besler and 2017 Defender of the Year Ike Opara.
- an offense led by three attackers who scored in double figures across all competitions: Wingers Daniel Salloi (13) and Johnny Russell (12) and striker Diego Rubio (10).
- a strong and diverse midfield triangle of Felipe Gutierrez, Roger Espinoza, and Ilie Sanchez.
- Manager Peter Vermes, a finalist for MLS Coach of the Year that season.
Though Vermes had not guided Sporting back to MLS Cup in the five seasons since 2013’s championship season (2018 ended with a 3-2 home loss to 5th seed Portland Timbers in the two-leg conference final), Vermes – as both technical director and manager – had established a firm culture; helped guide the Sporting KC Academy, named tops in MLS; given the club a seeming clear direction; and built an aura of high expectation. Further affirmation came in January of 2019 as Vermes won the MLS Sporting Executive of the Year.
Sporting Kansas City fans were comfortable with, nay excited, compelled, by the state of their club. Yet, as did surely Sporting’s leadership, they wanted more.
In MLS – perhaps MLS 3.0 – things were moving forward. Paying $70-110 million dollars in expansion fees to the league, Orlando City and New York City FC (2015), Atlanta United and Minnesota United (2017), and Los Angeles FC (2018) had come online.
With expansion came “new” ideas, especially in roster construction. Looking at Atlanta United’s 2017 squad alone (which finished 2nd in the East and in the Supporter’s Shield race), one could see a shift in the MLS landscape:
- 20-year-old American defender Miles Robinson on a Generation Adidas contract
- 22-year-old Paraguayan midfielder Hector Villalba as a designated player
- 23-year-old Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron as a designated player
- 23-year-old German/American defender Julian Gressel
- 23-year-old Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez as a designated player
- 19-year-old American forward Brandon Vazquez.
Meanwhile, Sporting’s DPs were Yohan Croizet (age 26), Felipe Gutierrez (26), and Roger Espinoza (31). In age, Kansas City’s 2018 roster was the 5th oldest in MLS. For sure, experienced players (Zusi was 32 and Besler was 31) give a side a strong “win now” attribute, yet from 2013 through 2017, Sporting’s roster had never been any higher than 10th oldest.
Likewise though, Atlanta’s expansion season roster was dotted with stable veterans like goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defender Michael Parkhurst and more. But Atlanta United were clearly looking to the future. Additionally, one needs only to look at the ascension of every one of those Atlanta players (but Villalba) through 2023 to see that Atlanta’s brass had an eye for talent. In Almiron’s case, he was sold to EPL club Newcastle United for an MLS record transfer fee in January of 2019.
By September of 2019 in Kansas City, Croizet was released by Kansas City, Gutierrez, though the team’s MVP in 2019, had missed the entire 2020 season due to injury and was released before the 2021 season.
Near the end of my commentary on the re-signings, I wrote, “Yes, there is recent signee Andreu Fontas (28), or others, who could supplant an aging Besler by the time the captain’s new contract expires. Yes, there is Designated Player Felipe Gutierrez (27) or [Wan] Kuzain who could supplant an aging Espinoza. Yes, Jaylin Lindsey is likely the right back of the future to supplant Zusi. But now is not the time to move on from these three veterans and Ilie for Sporting Kansas City.”
I did not foresee that five years later a 33-year-old Fontas is seemingly the first-choice left center back, a 36-year-old Espinoza is getting the lion’s share of minutes at one of the #8s in midfield, and a 36-year-old Zusi is the first-choice starter at right back. 2018 was not the time; 2023 is significantly past the time.
In January of 2019, Sporting Kansas City traded away then 29-year-old Opara to Minnesota United. At the time, the trade was met with some consternation as a vital piece of the best defensive center back pairing in MLS was gone, yet there was also much praising of Peter Vermes’ skill in “buying low and selling high” as Opara had been acquired in 2013 for a 2nd round draft pick and was traded for $900K in Targeted Allocation Money.
During the next five seasons, Sporting would play/bring in 12 different center backs – most who played at right center back – to find the right partner for Besler and then left center back Andreu Fontas after Besler was let go (without any compensation) before the 2021 season. That season, holding midfielder Ilie made 21 of his 33 appearances at, you guessed it, right center back.
|December of 2021
|July of 2020
|May of 2019
|December of 2020
|December of 2021
|December of 2022
|December of 2022
The amount of resources allotted to bring in and pay those center back candidates likely far exceeds the financial boon of trading Opara. Opara would go on to win the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year before multiple concussions and a difficulty recovery period led him to retire… Whether or not the concussions would have been Opara’s fate had he remained in Kansas City, one cannot know. What we do know… although Opara had signed a new contract with Sporting the season before he was traded and wanted more money after seeing Fontas receive a large contract …is that quality should be a valued commodity.
Even though Opara did not fit the mold of a center back who could distribute and possess the ball well enough to complement the new possession-based system Vermes was implementing, the system and the players Vermes placed within it desperately needed a center back… just like Opara. Two sleek passing, deep lying playmakers – one at holding midfield (Ilie) and the other at left center back (Besler/Fontas) – who lacked a significant array of athleticism demanded an aggressive, physically gifted right center back who never let anyone pass easily. Thus, the foundation of the team’s core, its spine, has been unsettled since Opara was traded.
Center back is not the only position that has been unsettled for Sporting Kansas City in recent years.
Sporting runs a 4-3-3, a formation dependent on the middle trio being elite, at least as a group, and it hasn’t been since that 2018 season when Chilean Gutierrez (27) at the #10/8, Espinoza (31) at the other #8, and Ilie (27) at the base #6 patrolled the meat of the spine. The aftershock is that the new system of play has been ridiculously under-manned.
Sporting’s critical midfield trio had one elite player from 2017 through 2021 – Ilie. Ilie was (and still is) a player who embodies next-level composure on the ball, who helps a side have next-level possession and playmaking from deep midfield. Ilie is able to not only progress the ball, but to find the right player in the right space at the right time. Those are special skills that only special players have. Although those skills were not enough to be cherished by FC Barcelona’s system, where he developed, or at 1860 Munich, they play very well in MLS and its related competitions.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 12, 2023
When Ilie was let go in November of 2021 (Yes, Sporting received no compensation for him.), Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) picked up the Spaniard because he was a plug-and-play figure for them. Twenty-four-year-old Ecuadorian Jose Ciefuentes and 27-year-old American Kelyn Acosta are youthful, athletic midfielders with the industry and soccer IQ that enable all three to be at their best. Players need to be put into situations where they can succeed. Isn’t that how roster construction works? Now, Ilie is invigorated, even at age 32. Now, this is the consensus on Ilie at LAFC:
The problem is not that Kansas City let Ilie go (they shouldn’t have), it is that they hardly ever put the right players next to him (center back included) to highlight his abilities when they did have him.
Two other facets of LAFC’s approach are relevant here. First, Ciefuentes could be on the move soon due to offers from abroad. Proactively, they have brought in 24-year-old German-American Timothy Tillman to give their midfield depth and to groom Ciefuentes’ heir. Tillman has fit right in and has taken significant time from Ciefuentes. Meanwhile, Sporting signs players to replace Ilie at the vital #6 spot who are either not a fit (see Jose Mauri), not good enough (see Uri Rosell), or not able to play because of injury (see 30-year-old Nemanja Radoja).
Second, in 2022, the combined salaries of LAFC’s midfield trio was $2.617 million. The combined salary of Ilie, Gutierrez, and Espinoza in 2018 was $2.825 million with Espinoza hitting at $900K.
Espinoza was given designated player money by Sporting from 2015 through 2019. For all of Espinoza’s value as a box-to-box midfield hound, as a strong passer able to spray the ball around well, and as a clubhouse leader, he was never a DP-level player. That is the case for a number of players to whom Sporting gave DP money (which can include a portion of the transfer fee paid):
- Jeferson in 2011 – remember him? Yah, me neither.
- Zusi from 2014-2017 – Graham is a very good player and has served Kansas City well… but no.
- Gerso Fernandes 2017 – A direct, vertical threat, yes. A limited skillset, yes. DP worthy? No.
- Yohan Croizet 2018-2019 – No words are needed.
Sporting has made some sharp deals over the years – the sales/trades of Dom Dwyer, Feilhaber, and Gianluca Busio along with getting good players on free transfers – yet overall it has been more miss than hit. Other salary allotments that did not make sense include laying out $350,000 (and a first-round pick in the 2020 draft) to reacquire Krisztian Nemeth in August of 2018 and subsequently paying him $950K in 2019 and paying Khiry Shelton $650K (league average was $398,725) in 2021. Lastly, Sporting paid Opara $150K in 2017 and $324K (a substantial raise for sure) in 2018. Yet, they paid Fontas $999K in 2018 and a million plus through 2022, as well as Nicolas Isimat-Mirin $950K in 2021 and 2022.
While we are here, 2022 Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup Runners-Up and 2023 CONCACAF Champions League Semifinalists Philadelphia Union (in his third year with the club) paid their MLS Best 11 Center back Jacob Glesnes and their MLS Best 11 left back Kai Wagner $675K and $510K respectively last season (and their key holding midfielder Jose Martinez $250K).
(Salary data from Final 2022 MLS Salaries Released – The Blue Testament)
Just a glance at the top six teams in MLS over the past two and a third seasons – New England Revolution, LAFC, Union, Portland Timbers, Nashville SC, Seattle and NYCFC and Montreal (the last three tied for sixth) – reveals that a balance of talents in the midfield or a difference-making attacking midfielder supported by a strong defensive midfielder and a solid backline is the basic template for success. For those 79 matches, Sporting is tied with LA Galaxy at #13 in points, behind 17 other clubs. Clearly, Sporting has not met the criteria in that span (and beyond).
Is it unfair to compare Sporting Kansas City and the “small market” in the Midwest they operate out of with Atlanta United, owned by Arthur Blank, or LAFC, or Philadelphia Union? No, they are Sporting’s competition. Does Sporting have to pay players more to come to Kansas City? Maybe. But the point is in the foundational concepts. Sporting have not done a good enough job of recognizing talent, of injecting youthful athleticism combined with soccer acumen, of replacing aging players, and of constructing their roster to not only compete in MLS 3.0, but to fit their own system of play.
In time, All things shake loose
In the past, even after a disappointing loss, or especially after a disappointing lost, Sporting KC would go to Atlanta United or Portland Timbers or Seattle Sounders and give them their first home loss of the season or put a stop to a crazy long home winning streak the daunting opponent had or just get an unexpected result. There are myriad examples of similar rebounds, so many that they even became predictable. Those rebounds do not happen anymore. The team seems to have lost character, lost resiliency.
Saturday’s win at Seattle was a good sign. However, no team led by Vermes and captained by Russell is going to lie down. Sporting was a lion backed into a corner by Matchday eleven. That fight, that win, was needed by all to believe again. Whether any substantial change comes of it remains to be seen. It remains possible that Sporting’s character has been dulled by tattered tactics and a third or fourth tier MLS roster.
In the announcement of Zusi, Espinoza, Ilie, and Besler re-signing in September of 2018, an explanatory quote from Vermes was provided.
“These players have consistently performed at a high level and helped the club achieve tremendous success,” he said in a statement. “Their winning mentality, work ethic, team-first attitude and all of the contributions they make outside of the soccer field in the community are integral to our strong culture, and we are excited to continue our pursuit of all of our goals with them in Kansas City.”
Vermes’ quote contains a bit of hyperbole, a lot of truth, and insight to how roster decisions are made. Vermes and the club hold fast to their core values of team first, high work ethic, intelligence, and a daily pursuit of excellence. And those traits are vital and put a team on the direct path toward success. But a club’s culture – no matter how strong it is – does not ensure a good soccer team.
In reality, nothing ensures a good soccer team. Yet, it seems that loyal soldiers who fit the mold of the club culture are held onto, or even reacquired, while quality of play takes a back seat. Shelton, Rosell, Zusi, Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber (reacquired in 2019), Fontas, and even perhaps team captain Johnny Russell are all current or recent examples.
For dedicated fans of Sporting Kansas City, it is uncomfortable to think of moving on from a manager and many of the players who have molded the team that is part of even our own identity; who some of us have come to know personally, even if just on a professional or acquaintance level; who have planted indelible moments into our lives and given us such joy. Sentiment plays a part here. And sentiment might play a part in some of Vermes’ roster decisions. We are all human, these emotional beings. Though we may at times despise those passions.
Yet, when problems linger and erosion starts to set in, revealing the underlying faults – those are human too – we have to shake things up.
Sporting ownership shook things up with the rebrand from Kansas City Wizards to Sporting Kansas City in November of 2010. A year prior they had named Vermes as head coach. Vermes’ track record shows that he was indeed the person to lead the club through the rebrand and into a new era as head coach and technical director (that title changed to sporting director in 2019).
Since 2018, a new era in MLS and Sporting Kansas City’s up and down results and multiple roster construction issues reveal that Sporting is not equipped be competitive over the long term (Just sneaking into the playoffs – likely takes 37 points in 23 games for 2023 – is not being competitive. Getting knocked out of the playoffs at home by a lower seeded team is failure.) for MLS 2023 and beyond. The results and the roster construction send similar, though now jaded, messages to the re-signings of 2018:
To fans the message was… “We value commitment.” – the fans need to feel committed to.
To MLS… “We aren’t going anywhere.” – Sporting slumped at home in the postseason in 2018, 2020, and 2021 and missed the playoffs in 2019 and 2022 and will in 2023. Going nowhere.
To current and future Sporting KC players… “This is how to be successful, and we are here to help you succeed.” – There have been a few success stories for young players in Busio and Lindsey. For both academy products and acquired youth, success has been fleeting. We still, however, hold out hope for Ndenbe, Voloder, Tzionis, Davis, Pierre, and others to come.
The events of the last four plus years and the continual downturns of the last 79 matches make the uncomfortable comfortable. Allowing Sporting’s tectonic plates to continue shifting amid faults and create further pressure will lead to a quake that will have even more lasting aftershocks.