By Kevin Shank (@kev_shank)
The 2017 campaign saw Sporting Kansas City bring home silverware in the US Open Cup while simultaneously having a confusing, and ultimately disappointing MLS season. On the back of a rebuilt attacking corps, they're hoping for a return to MLS Cup in 2018.
2017 in review
It is hard to define the 2017 season as a success or failure because SKC was a team that had the league’s best defense but was also paired with an underperforming offense whose top attacker was traded midseason. In addition, Kansas City backed into the playoffs and lost their fourth straight knockout round playoff game, but all in all, they still managed to win a trophy.
Let’s start the 2017 season analysis with the impressive SKC’s defense that led the league with 33.77 xG conceded and 27 goals against (excluding own goals). Looking at the backline, SKC was the only team to allow fewer than one expected goal against per game by limiting their opponents to few and low-quality shots. The graphic below shows just how good the defense led by Goalkeeper-of-the-Year Tim Melia and an injury-free Ike Opara was compared to the rest of league.
So, a team that was tidy at the back and had the second best xGD of 16.29 surely must've been one of the best all-around MLS teams in 2017, right? Well, not exactly. Even though Kansas City was about average in the league for creating chances, they underperformed their 50.05 xG by only scoring 39 goals. This -11.05 G-xG underperformance made SKC second worst in the league for finishing their chances (only behind DC United).
To make their goal-scoring woes apparently even worse, SKC sent their midseason leader in xG, Dom Dwyer (6.51 xG), to Orlando for a record deal in allocation money. Interestingly, while Kansas City still scored chances at the same rate of ~1.15 goals/game after the Dwyer deal, they did increase their chance production from 1.35xG/game to 1.67 xG/game. Nevertheless, Kansas City’s defense faltered toward the end of the season as the team went from conceding 15 goals in 21 games with 1.57 PPG before the trade to conceding 14 goals in 13 games with 1.23 PPG. The below graphic shows the back-and-forth season SKC had with the noticeable underperformance that led the team to drop in table going into the playoffs.
On the bright side, SKC had forwards Diego Rubio and Latif Blessing to fill the shoes of Dwyer. Rubio and Blessing each had a higher xG/96 (0.481 and 0.412, respectively) compared to Dwyer during his 2017 campaign at SKC (0.407). By comparing the shot maps of Dwyer before his trade to Rubio and Blessing after the trade, it seems that SKC would have found sufficient, but not exceptional, replacements for their go-to striker over the past four seasons.
The first loss came when Latif Blessing was taken by LAFC in the Expansion Draft. He’ll be joined at LAFC with Benny Feilhaber as their aging midfielder was traded for more allocation money. Feilhaber and Blessing were top contributors to SKC’s goal-scoring opportunities with xGC productions of 0.67 and 0.51 xGC/96, respectively, which were the first and third best numbers on their end-of-the-season roster.
Another notable offseason departure includes defender Erik Palmer-Brown being out of contract. The promising youth national team member ended a disappointing four year career with SKC after being loaned out and failing to find regular minutes (706 minutes in 2017). On the bright side, EPB joins Mix Diskerud as being a pair of elite Americans on Manchester City (while being subsequently loaned out).
Sporting KC’s departures also include losing several fringe players like Soony Saad, Soni Mustivar, and backup GK Andrew Dykstra. However, they were able to trade defender Saad Abdul-Salaam for NYCFC forward Khiry Shelton. Shelton has not seen consistent minutes for NYCFC since the club’s inception and his offensive numbers are puzzling. He either scores or assists a goal almost every other game, but in his best season of 2016, he overachieved his xG+xA production by 5.15. It is tough to say whether Shelton will be the answer to SKC’s lack of scoring, but he’ll certainly need better numbers and regular minutes to ignite their offense.
Kansas City have also looked outside MLS to fortify their squad, using their allocation money to buy down their existing DPs. They signed recently-turned 26-year-old French attacking midfielder Yohan Croizet as a Designated Player who can play inside and on the wings. They also signed another DP in Felipe Gutierrez, a 27-year-old Chilean midfielder with 35 caps and four goals for his country. With Gutierrez's pedigree and versatility from experience at playing the six, eight, and 10, SKC seem to be in good hands with their replacements for Feilhaber. They have also added 27-year-old Scottish winger Johnny Russell from Derby County of England’s Championship. In his 187 games in the Championship, Russell has averaged 0.44 G+A/96, which is a good sign of his production, but we can dig even deeper. Thanks to Paul Riley’s Build-Your-Own Expected Goal Model, I’ve found that he is producing at 0.21 xG/96, which is good but not exceptional. However, keeping in mind that his xG production is in the Championship, it is likely that his numbers will increase when playing in a slightly lower league (sorry Matt Doyle).
Finally, Kansas City added more depth in free agency, Homegrown signings, and draft picks. Kansas City took advantage of free-agency and signed two-time MLS Cup Champion Brad Evans to bolster their defense. Forward Zach Wright and defender Matt Lewis were signed to Homegrown contracts while the drafted Graham Smith will be fighting with Graham Zusi to be the best defender on the team that shares a first name with a cracker. SKC also drafted Eric Dick for added goalkeeper depth.
While some of the personnel have changed, expect to see SKC in the same formation of a 4-3-3 with their high press. In this signature high press, the entire team contributes to defense and the stats back up their playing style. In their middle and attacking thirds, SKC restricted their opponents’ passes to be 4.29% less successful than their expected passing rate, likely due to the press limiting their options.
Starting all the way in the back, SKC will have their net guarded by Tim Melia, who is coming off a rightly deserved Goalkeeper-of-the-Year season. He led the league in expected goals saved with 11.01 xGA-GA, which is seven more expected saves than the second-place leader. Between Adrian Zendejas and Eric Dick, SKC will have competition for the back-up role while the other likely gets playing time for Swope Park Rangers.
Ike Opara and Matt Besler will hold down the center of the backline, assuming the former can stay healthy. The pair be backed up by Homegrown Kevin Ellis, Amer Didic, and loanee Emiliano Amor. On the right, Graham Zusi will start and will be backed up by free agent signing Brad Evans or Homegrown Jaylin Lindsey. However, on the left, it is expected to see Jimmy Medranda start, but there is depth between him, Seth Sinovic, and the young Cristian Lobato who has gotten the nod in preseason games. This increased depth could even send Medranda or Zusi to play a midfield role instead of being on the backline.
The SKC midfield has talent with Ilie Sanchez playing a holding midfield role. Ilie will likely have Roger Espinoza on his right and Felipe on his left. SKC’s midfield depth stems from their defensive depth. Again, with having defenders like Sinovic, Lobato, and Evans, it is possible to see Medranda or Zusi get minutes in midfield. They also have depth in their new DP Croizet who can play an attacking role inside, but with a packed midfield of Ilie, Espinoza, and Felipe, it is hard to see which player he would replace, so it likely that the Frenchman will be pushed up as a winger.
Up top, SKC again has depth, but are still lacking a proven MLS goal-scorer. On the wings, it is expected to see Gerso and Croizet on either side of their striker. So far in preseason, it seems like Shelton will be their starting #9 with Rubio backing him up. The other options as their forwards include Scottish winger Russell and Dániel Sallói. No matter how Vermes chooses his Starting XI, it seems like a talented will either not start or will play out of position, which is a consequence of having depth.
This season Sporting KC will still have their strong backline and goalkeeping which have been bolstered with depth; I expect to see the same tidy defense before they faltered toward the end of 2017. The midfield and forwards are talented, but without a true #9 or proven MLS goal-scorer, it is hard to see where exactly the goals will come. I’m sure that the likes of Espinoza, Felipe, Croizet, and Gerso will have no problem creating chances, but relying on Shelton or Rubio to lead the team in double-digit goals is not as sure of a thing.
This team should and likely will make the playoffs. If they can sort 2017’s goal-scoring problem, I think they will do very well and finish high enough to avoid their dreaded Knockout Round playoff game.