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By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
In the Sporting Kansas City playoff preview last year I wrote that for SKC in 2018, the bottom didn’t fall out. That doesn’t sound particularly noteworthy, but it has been an ongoing theme through the years with Peter Vermes’ teams. His up tempo and high press style has often faced scrutiny due lack of rotation. It’s led some to question whether Vermes’ tactical approach is viable for 34 to 40 games per season.
But their late season volatility isn’t all that surprising when you consider how a lack of depth during an MLS season can cause issues. It’s even less surprising that SKC would have encountered it considering their organizational constraints over the years.
Since 2011, the first year in their eight year playoff streak, SKC has had the fifth smallest player budget according to the MLS Players Union. In spite of their frugal ways, SKC and Peter Vermes have somehow figured out how to accumulate the third highest point total in that eight year span, and rip off a string of extremely strong year-over-year performances.
The team budget has grown as they’ve converted their assets (Kei Kamara, Roger Espinoza, Oriol Rosell, Krisztian Nemeth, Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber) into additional value. It’s enabled a team that already did a solid job in recruitment to add depth to the team.
It could be argued that Sporting Kansas City and Peter Vermes were the first to fully understand how to leverage their resources with MLS rules and sell them on both the international and domestic stage.
2018 was made possible not just because of those players that were on the team and produced throughout the year on the pitch. But it started back in 2012 and building on top of each decision through a system and keeping true to the processes they outlined.
Offseason roster losses
Looking over this past offseason it would seem like the Kansas City lost a lot of really important pieces. Khiry Shelton left to take an opportunity with SC Paderborn 07 in Bundesliga 2. He didn’t have one real outstanding skillset or trait. He didn’t didn’t accumulate a ton of chances or directly create them. But his ability to hold up play was of value to this club.
His expected passing numbers weren't great (-1.9) and led forwards (minimum 1000 minutes) with the highest touch to turnover rate in MLS. His expected buildup per 96 minutes among his peers wasn’t great either, ranking 28th out of 45.That’s not to say he didn’t have great moments, but his numbers shouldn’t be impossible to replicate.
Speaking of players whose stock was a bit overvalued, the organization sold high on striker Diego Rubio after his eight goal season in just over 800 minutes. It’s not to say he was bad or he won’t score more goals, but the just a quick gander at his goals scored minus expected goals (4.3) show he probably isn’t going to continue to be as efficient as he was last year.
Still, moving on from Rubio entirely was a bit of a surprise. Getting back a player such as Kelyn Rowe in return was a stunning deal and he could prove to be another game changing quality player, despite SKC being loaded with those in the midfield.
Lastly, the organization moved Ike Opara barely a month ago. It’s a tough move because on one hand Opara is one of the best central defenders in Major League Soccer. But his skill set is largely built around his athleticism, and with his age and numerous injuries over the last 7-8 years it was a long term investment choice.
Opara wanted to get paid, and deservedly so. He’s spent two consecutive seasons doing everything that could be asked of him and then some. The dude deserves to get his. The problem, from a business perspective, was that I’m not sure it made a lot of sense for SKC to throw more money at him.
Trading Opara to Minnesota ended up being, in the words of Michael Scott, “a win-win-win.” And while it was probably sad for the Kansas City faithful to watch such a good player be mailed off, this has been SKC’s strategy. When the right opportunity comes, they’ve show they’re not going to hesitate to do what’s right for the long-term health of the organization.
Offseason roster additions
Despite moving Opara, the team added both Botond Barath and Abdul Rwatubyaye to the central defensive core. They’ll serve as the teams 3rd and 4th centerbacks, respectively.
After signing Hungarian international Krisztián Németh just five years ago, Vermes went back to the Hungarian well to acquire Barath. Barath is expected to serve as a centerback, despite largely serving as a full back in Europe. His ability on the ball and general athleticism should help him serve as a back up to Matt Besler.
Again, because Vermes repeatedly uses his connections, Rwatubyaye comes from the same scout who helps SKC identify and sign Latif Blessing. Much like Barath, the key trait mentioned is his ability on the ball. The key is that Vermes wants his centerbacks to contribute in possession and to progression of the attack. We’ll talk more about this when we get into their tactics.
Staying along the backline, the team also added fullback and winger Rodney Wallace. The Costa Rican international came from free-agency, but spent the better part of two years with NYCFC, where he was featured on the left attacking wing. I think the expectation for SKC is that Wallace can provide quality fullback depth behind Seth Sinovic.
As mentioned above, the team flipped impact back-up Diego Rubio for Kelyn Rowe. It feels funny enough to say, but Rowe still feels like he has untapped potential even at 27. He shows flairs of creative ability, a calmness on the ball, and has what feels like a tireless engine.
What’s weird though is he’s seen his xG+xA fall every year. His xPassing numbers aren’t good and his expected build-up is largely average. Was he in a bad system, or is he a guy we’re enamored with because he’s shown flashes of interesting but lacks the ability to be consistent? I don’t know if we’ll ever actually know the answer but I’m super excited to find out.
One other answer we don’t have just yet is how Rowe will be used. Will he be on the wing or flank, or will he move back centrally? In a lot of ways this seems like a great gamble but in another this seems a bit hair-brain schemed.
Erik Hurtado is the latest in a long line of unheralded strikers that can do a job in a Peter Vermes system, do it effectively, and have everyone hate them in the process. He’s a guy that doesn’t have flashy tools, and is kind of in the Khiry Shelton mold of average everywhere, but not great anything. That said, they’re different in how they both approach the game and how they execute it. Hurtado is probably a notch above where Shelton was and can probably help add to the attack a bit more.
Just like how Shelton had a low key 2016 that gave you some small insight that in a specific role he could have success, Hurtado had a very similar season that same year. He probably won’t score more than 10 goals this year, but if it’s a season where he adds five or six across 1,500 minutes that would probably be considered a successful year.
Tim Melia will once more be the starting keeper, and if you’ve not heard by now he’s very very good. His positioning and shot blocking ability alone can help influence an individual game outcome.
Andre Fontas is a great and skilled defender, and while we didn’t see it much on display through last season, we saw a small preview in CCL this past week. He’s a different type of quality than Opara, however, so I think it may take some time for him to tactically mesh with Besler.
Speaking of CCL, and Matt Besler, his talents were on full display this past week. Not only is he still one of, if not the best, center backs in this league, he’s also one of the best on the ball and delivering a 60 yard pass.
Over the last few years he’s consistently been a plus passer out of the back, which can be huge for Peter Vermes and his system. He’s also been one of the most creative centerbacks, often creating chances from his own half. Besler has always stood out to me as one of the more unique defenders, as he’s predominately accepted as a plus defender despite a lack of defensive statistics.
Seth Sinovic somehow has managed to fend off Rodney Wallace so far this pre-season for the starting left back job. Considering how entrenched he has been at the position, it’s probably not too surprising to the SKC faithful that Peter Vermes has decided to continue with him. Sinovic is probably one of the most underrated players in this system under Vermes over the last five years. He consistently shows the engine and dedication Vermes demands every day of every week in season and out.
That said, Wallace will eventually provide both tactical flexibility and a change in skill set when needed for Vermes. His place along the backline isn’t surprising however as he’s played there for Costa Rica.
While Sinovic is probably the most underrated, Graham Zusi over the years has been one of the most overrated in terms of value and production (though certainly not his hair, amirite?). However, his change in position to Right Back has changed that and he’s become one of the better right backs in the league.
He doesn’t provide booming pace, his athleticism isn’t what it once was, and his one-v-one defense is sometimes a bit wanting. But his high effort, tactical awareness, and ability to be a game changer in the attacking third through possession and being on the ball is near unparalleled for the position.
Lastly there is also Jaylin Lindsey, who will most certainly factor into playing time this year. For all the things Zusi lacks at times, Lindsey can be those things. Much like Wallace, he brings a tactical wrench that can change the flow of the game through his energy. He still has flaws to his game, but he’s also barely old enough to see rated R movies by himself. He has tons of upside and the organization (and much of twitter) loves to rave about his game.
The midfield will feature a six that is a deep lying playmaker, Ille Sánchez, who will help push the counter attack wide. He will occasionally be a third center back who falls back between Besler and Fontas.
The two “eights” SKC often plays with will feature Felipe Gutierrez and Roger Espinoza. Guiterrez has shown some lights out potential in the attack, but he’s a two way player who chases the ball and plays great defense while also getting forward and having the ability to make game changing plays.
Espinoza is a guy that closing in on his last moments in this league. While he still has the ability to track a guy or two down during the match, his usefulness is more of what he influences at this stage. He’s not going to shy out of a tackle, but much like Sanchez he is going to shuttle attackers in areas for support. He’s going to play simple passes, keep possession and help progress the ball forward in the attack. It’s the subtle things which Espinoza still does really well.
On the wing, Gerso Fernandez showed up in SKC as a winger with pure blazing speed, but what he’s shown over the last few years is that he’s an attacker with huge physical gifts but lacking that one big true technical skill needed to be an elite winger in this league. His flashes of brilliance come so infrequently that sometimes you have to wonder if he warrants a starting position.
Daniel Salloi, will fight with Fernandez for starting minutes and will also slide out on the left wing. His 8.2 expected goals last year was second to Johnny Russell, and showed one of those important steps for a young attacker.
I don’t think I’m alone in my sentiment that Russell was a lot of fun to have in this league last year. His addition from Derby County last year was a bit of a weird one simply because of how much more successful he was relative to others coming from the English Championship. Russell not only showed that important high energy that is vital to being part of Sporting, but he also showed he could be a difference maker at times. Not only can he cut inside and take shots but he can also get to the inline and deliver vicious cut back passes to those making runs into the box (he led the team in expected assists).
Despite all these exciting and talented players, the team still has plenty of questions surrounding this midfield. How and where does Rowe fit into this scheme? Does DP Yohan Croizet still have a place? How will they give minutes to Wan Kuzain and Gianluca Busio? And perhaps most importantly, “what happens to this team if Ille Sánchez goes down”?
Erik Hurtado is going to play 1,000 to 1,500 minutes. But it’s not like he’s going to be counted on to score a ton of goals. Rather his responsibility, and really anyone who takes the “nine” mantle for SKC has this responsibility, it’s about hold up play and passing ability.
Krisztian Nemeth, will take most starts so long as he’s healthy. His play is a bit more nuanced than Hurtado’s rough and tumble approach.
Nemeth was great when he first arrived, but fast forward now four years and he’s more or less the same player with less probability to take another step that launches him into elite status. That said, he’s a fine attacker and I’m interested to see how he’ll serve in his new role at the “nine” and how it will effect this team in creating chances.
One last name to tuck away in your hat is Tyler Freeman, a local homegrown player. I’m sure he’ll get a few minutes, but how much and in what role he’ll feature remains to be seen.
Last year Sporting Kansas played 34 league games and in every one they used a 4-3-3 formation. Can you guess what they’re about to do for another 34 games this season? Don’t be surprised if Vermes decides to shake a few things up over the course of this season, as he’s not as rigid as last season made it seem. Something Vermes hasn’t gotten credit for is his ability to show tactical flexibility in formats such as US Open Cup and in situations where he has less personnel flexibility to execute the standard SKC strategy.
It sounds like SKC’s 4-3-3 this year will also change a bit from last years. Part of that is about the different pieces that will be involved in this year’s formation. We saw the midfield get a bit more forward in their first CCL match last week, with the formation morphing into something of a 3-5-2. That was both a product of their opponent and also a result of their available personnel.
I would expect we’re going to see a bit more possession oriented style of play, with the potential of guys to come off the bench that can provide a unique injection of tactical flexibility. The team can get a bit more run-n-gun later in games if they want, or start out that way and move into a slower pace later in the games.
This new tactic could help the team with recovery, as rather than playing 90 minutes where the team is running constantly and applying pressure on every possession, they’ll be able to conserve some energy.
Kansas City has incredible depth. You could pick 22 random players from their roster out of a hat and still feel good about their expected outcome in the match. But at the same time, we lack a full understanding of the quality Vermes has at his disposal. The quality of some of the incoming players is still unclear, and some of the established guys are showing their age. However, the beauty of the SKC way is that they have the flexibility both with their roster and their financial position to find ways to replacement and supplement when those situations occur.
Right now this team has enough cumulative talent on it to be an impact team, and I think the most probable finish for them is top third of the West. And, if everything goes right, they are likely take a swing at the Supporters’ Shield.