The Major League Soccer season is just around the corner. Sporting Kansas City are set to open their season two weeks from Saturday, on the road against the Houston Dynamo. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the team to make signings, though there is nothing stopping them from adding players after the season begins.
With the news coming out on Wednesday that the team lost out on the Kellyn Acosta sweepstakes, it’s unclear what move(s) may be on the horizon. The team now has 28 of its 30 roster spots filled, but there have been no groundbreaking additions.
Despite a nearly full roster, the team is razor thin at the top. The likely Starting XI, which is the same as it was when we wrote our “way too early” depth chart, is super talented. There are players at every position who have the potential to carry this team. Sure, some spots are shakier than others, but on the whole, this is a quality group of starters.
Behind those starters are nothing but question marks. There is very little experience to go around if someone gets hurt. The best way I can put it is the team’s ceiling is super high if everyone stays healthy, but the floor is below the basement. It could be ugly.
This team was the best team in the West from May 2023 on and a blown handball call away from playing in the Western Conference finals. But this same team (almost exactly the same) was the worst team in the league for the first 10 games of 2023.
Which of those teams shows up probably depends greatly on health. The team is essentially just the same guys (minus a few pieces) that are all now a year older. If they evade the advances of father time (who is undefeated, btw), then they can be great. If they don’t, and they almost surely won’t, who knows what Sporting KC we get in 2024.
The Offseason So Far…
Sporting Kansas City’s offseason can accurately be summed up with one of the internet’s favorite memes.
— Mike (@downthebyline) January 3, 2024
It’s not like they’ve done nothing, but it sort of feels like it. The team has made only four signings.
The subtractions have some big names, but they were mostly aging veterans or fringe players. Outside of Designated Player Gadi Kinda, which could be a massive blow to this team.
OUT: Graham Zusi (RB), Roger Espinoza (MID), Kortne Ford (CB – signed to SKC II), Kendall McIntosh (GK), Cam Duke (MID), Felipe Gutierrez (MID), Gadi Kinda (DP MID)
Even if Sporting KC go and fill their last two roster spots, they are going to be more reliant than ever on young, unproven players. Or more likely, they are going to drive their aging veterans into the ground. Manager Peter Vermes may prove everyone wrong and rotate players well and play the kids, but I think it’s reasonable to be skeptical until he proves otherwise. Past is prologue.
Depth Chart Panic Rankings
Let’s take a look at the depth in every position on the field if the starters were to go down. Obviously, players can play multiple spots, and surely will, but let’s just place players in one position for the purpose of this exercise. But know full well that Remi Walter, who I’ll list as a starter, is probably the primary backup to Nemanja Radoja and can play there with Walter’s backup (Felipe Hernandez) stepping into his minutes.
Also, all the stats will be based on domestic league play for simplicity. That will leave out minutes played in cup competitions, like the US Open Cup, Leagues Cup or CONCACAF Champions League/Cup here in the United States. All stats from FBref.com.
STARTER: Alan Pulido
Backup: Willy Agada
MLS Minutes: 1,606
Even though Alan Pulido is the highest paid player on Sporting KC, this is probably the position that might be able to most withstand an injury. Willy Agada joined SKC in the summer of 2022 and was an absolute terror scoring eight goals and adding two primary assists in just over 900 minutes. He struggled out of the gate in 2023, but then needed a surgery. While he didn’t play much upon his return, he immediately found his form and started knocking in goals.
While no team wants to lose their DP striker, center forward is the position with the best backup on the roster. Agada would probably start on half the teams in MLS.
Panic Level: 3/10
STARTER: Daniel Salloi
Backups: Stephen Afrifa & Marinos Tzionis
MLS Minutes: Afrifa (3), Tzionis (1,504)
Looking at the preseason battle, Afrifa seems to have the lead here (though he can play CF too and probably RW). Tzionis has more experience, but he’s yet to do much of anything in MLS. Despite all those minutes, he had a lone assist last year and a single goal the year before. While Stephen Afrifa may be the real deal, he’s entirely unproven. If Salloi were to miss any extended period of time, I think it’s safe to say we have no idea what we are getting.
Panic Level: 7/10
STARTER: Johnny Russell
Backups: Khiry Shelton & Alenis Vargas
MLS Minutes: Shelton (10,002*), Vargas (0)
*This includes Shelton’s 57 minutes over two seasons with Paderborn 07 in the 2. Bundesliga and Bundesliga.
Minutes played aren’t everything. I think most of the Sporting KC fan base would tell you they’d rather not see Shelton on the pitch, as he’s struggled to live up to his exorbitant salary (who was Vermes bidding against exactly). And despite that, he’s already out with surgery for 8-10 weeks, so that leaves the unproven Vargas as the next man up.
Alenis Vargas absolutely was on fire with SKC II last year, and he could be proven to be an adequate replacement. Hell, he could be a star, but he’s just unknown. And I think it’s safe to say, any extended time without Johnny Russell could be tough for Sporting KC to overcome. I’m high on Vargas, but you don’t know exactly if his skills will translate at this level.
Panic Level: 7/10
Attacking Mid (#10)
STARTER: Erik Thommy
Backups: Memo Rodriguez & Ozzie Cisneros
MLS Minutes: Rodriguez (7,937), Cisneros (0)
First, Sporting KC don’t really play with an attacking midfielder. Thommy is more of a #8 that happens to attack more than his counterpart. I just needed to make a distinction.
With that out of the way, the team did a good bit of business adding MLS veteran Memo Rodriguez here. Before that addition, the team would have been relying on playing Ozzie Cisneros, who has never gotten into an MLS game, or someone out of position. That said, Rodriguez is still a big step down from Thommy, despite all of his experience.
Panic Level: 5/10
Box-to-Box Midfield (#8)
STARTER: Remi Walter
Backup: Felipe Hernandez
MLS Minutes: 3,388
Hernandez hasn’t been a regular starter since he was with the Swope Park Rangers from 2017-2019 in the USL. Last season, Felipe was probably the 7th midfielder in the depth chart, behind Thommy, Walter, Radoja, Kinda, Espinoza and Gutierrez. Now he’s realistically 4th or 5th, depending on where you place Memo.
He’s been a fan favorite when he’s out there, but he’s yet to take the leap and prove he can be an everyday MLS starter. Maybe he’s not gotten the chance. Maybe he hasn’t seized the opportunities he has had.
Panic Level: 5/10
Defensive Midfielder (#6)
STARTER: Nemanja Radoja
Backup: Danny Flores
MLS Minutes: 7
Again, this is a little silly, because Remi is probably the primary backup here, but this team is incredibly dependent on its d-mid and it drops off significantly when Radoja isn’t playing. Including when Walter is forced back to this spot. This isn’t a knock against Danny Flores, who may make a leap, but we just don’t know what the team has here.
Backup d-mid was one of my greatest concerns coming into the season. If the team had signed Acosta, I’d chop these number down significantly. But they didn’t.
Panic Level: 9/10
STARTER: Tim Leibold
Backup: Zorhan Bassong
MLS/Liga I Minutes: 2,135
Unfortunately, Logan Ndenbe is going to miss a great deal of 2024 with a torn ACL, so we’ll leave him out of the conversation. While Vermes has been impressed with Bassong in preseason, he’s only been a relatively consistent starter at one point in his career. That was in 2021 with CF Montreal. A Montreal team that was very bad. Again, like all these other positions, it may be fine to have your backups play and we won’t know until we see it. But the drop off from Leibold is steep.
Panic Level: 8/10
STARTERS: Andreu Fontas & Dany Rosero
Backups: Robert Castellanos, Robert Voloder, Chris Rindov
MLS Minutes: Castellanos (791), Voloder (1,749), Rindov (5)
The 22-year-old Voloder is the most experienced of the center backs and he seems to be behind Castellanos on the depth chart (or at least Rosero’s primary backup). Rindov is only in his second year and could take a leap. And Castellanos is a career backup who’s mostly bounced around the USL. For comparison, Fontas has 21,204 minutes as a professional, including a few injury plagued years when he first came to KC.
Center back is a concern. This is actually the position I’m most worried about, including starters.
Panic Level: 10/10
STARTER: Jake Davis
Backup: Kayden Pierre
MLS Minutes: 958
While Davis is the anointed starter here, he only has 2,056 MLS minutes, of which 2,037 came last season. Pierre missed most of last season with an injury, before having a promising rookie campaign as Graham Zusi’s backup the year before. Minutes and experience aren’t everything, but it’s once again super unclear what the depth at this position brings.
Panic Level: 5/10
STARTER: Tim Melia
Backups: John Pulskamp, Ryan Schewe
MLS Minutes: Pulskamp (2,018), Schewe (0)
About half (1,028) of Pulskamps minutes as an MLS goalkeeper came in 2022 when Sporting KC missed the playoffs (Pulskamp was 5-3-3 as a starter). He is the heir apparent at the position with first round draft pick Schewe brought on to keep providing competition (and cover for continued MLS Next Pro loans). Eventually this will be Pulskamp’s team but look no further than how good Tim Melia was when he returned from injury to show that there is still a gap between the starter and the backup.
Panic Level: 4/10
These panic levels are just if one player goes down. But it almost never plays out like that. If a few guys start picking up injuries, which is entirely reasonable, the concerns multiply.
The ceiling is high. Very, very high. But you can see why the floor is a wildly unknown low. If the team that showed up the first 10 games of 2023 is still hanging around behind a few injuries, it could get really ugly.
Then again, maybe a bunch of these backups are the next Jake Davis just waiting to emerge. Deep down, I’m an optimist. But I’m also a realist in that some of these guys will never make that leap.