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Making Sense of the Felipe Gutierrez Signing for Sporting KC

With Gutierrez returning to Sporting Kansas City, we take a dive into why this move may make some sense when it looks like just another retread on the surface.

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Credit: Thad Bell

On Thursday, Sporting Kansas City announced the return of former Designated Player, Felipe Gutierrez. It seemingly came out of the blue, as he was under contract to Al Wasl in the United Arab Emirates (before they agreed to release him). It marks another in a string of players returning to Sporting KC after stints with other clubs. A string, we must note, that has been filled with more misses than hits.

I, like many of you, have apprehension about the move. He’s 32-years-old, missed his entire final season with SKC due to a catastrophic knee injury and midfield is arguably the deepest position on the team. Additionally, his reacquisition pushes someone like Felipe Hernandez even further down the depth chart (I’d say Cam Duke too, but it feels like he’ll never see the field again).

There are plenty of things to be down on with this move. However, let’s look for the positives. Here are five reasons, this signing could make a ton of sense.

The Price Was Right

When Gutierrez was in KC for his last stint, he was a Designated Player. Due to the pandemic, 2020 salary data was never released, but in 2019 he was the highest paid player on the team with guaranteed compensation of $1.65 million.

In 2022, he played for the Colorado Rapids and made a reported $569,250. We don’t yet know what he’ll make in 2023 just yet (expect those numbers around September), but we do know that he was signed using the season-ending injury replacement player designation. Kortne Ford was added to the SEI list, a move that had to be done before the secondary transfer window or not at all. That made Ford’s entire $170,000 salary available to sign another player. It’s possible Vermes made a move for that exact amount, but it’s also a possibility that the team paid him more money. I’d guess he’s getting more, but that $170,000 discount matters.

Quality Depth for the Money

Speaking of the money, whatever the number ends up being, the likelihood of getting a player of Gutierrez’s quality for a really low number is increasingly unlikely. Looking at the salary data for Sporting KC, assuming that Guti is around Ford’s number, the guys just above that pay are players like the aforementioned Hernandez and John Pulskamp, and just below are Cam Duke and Kendall McIntosh. In other words, Homegrown players or lifetime backups.

Gutierrez has the potential to be really good. His minutes haven’t been nearly as significant since his bad injury in 2020 that cost him the whole season. But even if he’s only a fraction of the player he was, that’s still probably really good in a limited capacity. If he’s anywhere near his former levels, it’s an absolute steal. It’s getting a DP for a pittance.

Side Note: Look at how many “DPs” are on this roster now. At one point, Espinoza, Zusi and Russell were DPs and now are on lesser deals. Add Gutierrez to that mix. Plus, the three actual DPs the team still has in Pulido, Kinda and Thommy. After this year, Pulido and Kinda are out of contract. If Kinda returns, he almost certainly won’t be a DP (it was his transfer fee that made him one) and I’d only want Pulido back at a sub-DP number. So, they could add two more! I get that most of them aren’t what they were when they were DPs, but it’s still really great depth if nothing else. 

Vermes Trusts the Old Guys

This header is a problem in and of itself. Vermes’ lack of trust in his youth players to come off the bench is a story that’s been told over and over. However, you see when PV has depth he trusts on the bench, he’s much more likely to use it. Roger Espinoza has come off the bench, and played quite well, on several occasions. The same was true of Graham Zusi before he reinjured himself.

With Gutierrez being another option off of the bench, that’s someone else he will trust for spot starts or to come in and close out games which will save the legs of the starters. As Sporting KC are in the midst of three games in eight days again, depth Vermes trusts will be huge. It may be the difference between playing someone into the ground and getting them hurt and saving them to fight another day.

It’s a shame someone like that doesn’t exist on the forward line, though PV did put Tzionis and Afrifa in against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

“Seven” Position Depth

On Thursday, Peter Vermes told the KC Soccer Journal’s Thad Bell, “…in my opinion, [Gutierrez] probably can play seven positions on the field. So, with that, I think it was an easy decision.”

If you are like me, the number seven may have leaped out at you. Peter continued, “He can play left back, he can play either of the three guys in the midfield or any three of the front.”

Traditional winger feels like a bit of a stretch for me, which is ironically the position with the most questionable depth on the roster. We’ve definitely seen midfielders (Thommy, Kinda) play some false nine in the past, but with Willy Agada scheduled to be back soon, hopefully that won’t be necessary. And at left back, I won’t rule that out. This season alone Sporting KC have played Tim Leibold, Logan Ndenbe, Ben Sweat (since released), Robi Voloder, Roger Espinoza and Remi Walter at LB.

Despite all that, you’d primarily expect him in the midfield. He can play all three midfield spots, but his most important spot may be the deepest lying one, even if that’s not where he played most of the time when he was with the team previously.

Depth at Defensive Midfielder

Beyond just the general depth mentioned above, Felipe Gutierrez provides very specific coverage for Nemanja Radoja at defensive midfielder. With Radoja popping up on the injury report this week, that could be key.

When Radoja hasn’t been healthy (which has sadly been a lot), Remi Walter has played defensive midfielder. He is serviceable there, but it’s clearly not his spot. He works so hard, that he’s often caught out of position covering for other players. Radoja on the other hand, makes it look like he’s not working hard at all because he’s nearly always where he’s supposed to be. Shielding the backline (or dropping into it when Andreu Fontas goes on one of his enterprising runs).

Felipe Gutierrez played d-mid a little bit in his last stint, and he was very adept at making it look easy. Being where he was supposed to be all the time. Additionally, while he doesn’t have the physicality or size of Radoja, he does bring another skill. He’s a very good, deep-lying playmaker. He can see the field beautifully and will be able to spread the ball around in a style the team hasn’t seen since Ilie Sanchez left for LAFC.

At least Gutierrez used to have those skills. Hopefully he still does.

TL;DR

While this signing is still flawed in its long-term vision (more old guys, less youth getting playing time), Gutierrez looks likely to bring plenty of value in the short-term. He’s playing for a lower money deal; he was once one of the best players in the league and his arrival will save some legs of guys around him.

To quote George Strait, “[he] ain’t here for a long time, [he’s] here for a good time.”

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