Wednesday, November 05, 2014

What Happened and Where Do We Go From Here - Defenders

Yesterday I looked at Sporting KC's goalkeeping play in the 2014 season and what to look ahead to in the 2015 season. Now I'm going to look at Kansas City's defense.

The stories written about Kansas City's 2014 season will always talk about the bulk of injuries that Kansas City suffered through in the 2014 season. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the team's back line. Between just two of Kansas City's defenders expected to play big roles in 2014, Chance Myers and Ike Opara missed a combined 56 league games of a possible 68 the two could have played this year. There are also the minor knocks that both Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler dealt with. The only guy that seemed to stay healthy was Seth Sinovic who again led the team in minutes played this year in all competitions.

Kansas City's expected starting four on the back line, Myers, Collin, Besler, and Sinovic got to play just four games together due to Myers' injuries this year. That put even more pressure on 20 year old Brazilian, Igor Juliao. Juliao offensively looked perfect for Kansas City's high pressure system with his ability to get up the field and into the attack. Unfortunately his defense was not up to the level of Myers, which isn't surprising, but it eventually led to teams concentrating their attack down KC's right side to look to exploit Juliao's defense. His defensive play led to some issues for Collin who ended up getting pulled out of position to help Juliao often on the wing. The two for much of the season seemed to struggle to really get on the same page at times defensively.

On the opposite side of the defense, Sinovic was again solid for Kansas City at left back. But multiple times this year he appeared worn down and exhausted. Sinovic played over 7,200 minutes in all competitions. At this point with the number of games that Sinovic has played, I'm not sure that he's fully human.

The main reason for Sinovic's number of minutes has to do with KC's early season moves to waive both reserve defenders Josh Gardner and Mechack Jerome. Those two moves after KC's dismantling by Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League and Myers' injury left KC with only one true reserve outside back, Kevin Ellis, and he spent much of the season filling in at center back for Kansas City. KC got to the point where forward Jacob Peterson was pressed into playing on the back line for Kansas City at times. Gardner, Jerome, and Peterson combined to start six games in all competitions for Kansas City along the back line. In those six games, Kansas City went 2-2-2 with wins over Chicago and Minnesota in the US Open Cup.

Next to Sinovic, Sporting's captain, Besler missed a chunk of games in the middle of the season while he was away with the US national team at the World Cup. Upon his return, Besler didn't look like he ever regained the form he was in that led to his national team call ups, and that led to him winning a starting job on the USA's back line in Brazil. Besler, like Sinovic looked exhausted. Since the start of 2013, along with his 5,445 minutes played across all competitions, Besler added 1,746 while on national team duty, putting him just a little behind the number of minutes that Sinovic has played. And both have done that with basically one month off in that two year span as both players were called into the January US national team camp in 2014.

Besler's fatigue late in the season wasn't helped by the Opara injury mentioned earlier. Opara played in just three league games, and five in all competitions before hurting his foot and missing the rest of the season. The injury to Opara combined with suspensions, call ups, and selling Oriol Rosell led to Sporting's youngest player, teenager, Erik Palmer-Brown. Expected to maybe just start an Open Cup game or two, KC's third home grown player started five games across all competitions and came in very early in a sixth before he too suffered a season ending injury late in the season.

Probably the brightest spot of the defense was Ellis who played basically every position along the back line at some point this season. After Opara went down, Collin went down, Besler left for the World Cup, and Palmer-Brown got suspended, Ellis was put into emergency service at center back and did quite well. He was no world beater, but did well enough to stop some of the bleeding that KC was suffering from. The home grown player appeared in 20 league games and played over 2,000 minutes in all competitions this year for KC.

The defense going into the 2015 season is a big question for KC, possibly the biggest the team has to deal with this offense and there could be a number of changes. The biggest of which is Collin, who is out of contract. Collin and the team apparently haven't talked about a new contract in a while. Based on the KC Star article about Collin, the two teams appear to be far apart. With his center back partner, Besler earning a DP contract, it's easy to assume that Collin is looking for a DP salary as well. While the assumption is that KC will be getting rid of one DP this offseason, most people think it would be foolish for KC to use two of their three DP slots on their center backs when there are other needs for the team.

Another line of thinking with Collin is to wait to see how the upcoming CBA negotiations work out. The assumption there is that there will be a decent bump in the salary cap, bumping the maximum salary and possibly adding more DP slots. The problem with that line of thinking is that KC first has to deal with the expansion draft. The question with Collin is whether you protect the out of contract defender, potentially losing another player who is coming back next year, or leave him exposed and let him go for nothing. A third possibility would be to trade him in the small window between MLS Cup and the expansion draft, getting something for him while knowing that the likelihood of re-signing him is small.  If KC does protect him, or he isn't taken, KC have another potential worry. If KC decides to wait for the CBA negotiations and they drag out, a foreign club could come and offer a contract to the player and he could leave KC and MLS.

Beside Collin there are other questions that KC has to look at for 2015. Another big one revolves around the health of KC's defenders who ended the season on IR, Myers, Opara, and Palmer-Brown. The question for all three is whether they'll even be ready for the start of the 2015 season. I've seen players get Achilles injuries similar to Myers' and it take well over a year to really get back up to speed, and with Myers reliant on pace on the wing his potential involvement, at least early in the season is in question. The same is true for Opara who picked up his ankle injury, a chondral defect in his right ankle in late March. From looking at the recovery time from that injury, it seems to take 10 to 12 months. That would possibly make him available for the beginning of 2015, but where would he be at fitness wise after such a long layoff? Palmer-Brown's late season injury, a fifth metatarsal fracture to his right foot shouldn't have a huge effect on him for 2015 as he should hopefully be able to return in plenty of time.

The question with Palmer-Brown though could be if he's still going to be in KC for much longer. The rumors of Juventus’ interest in the center back continue. His lack of an EU passport though leaves Palmer-Brown having to wait until he turns 18 in April of 2015 before he can officially make a move. That means that any transfer would not occur until the summer of 2015.

Another big question on the back line for Kansas City is the outside back position. With Myers' injury still a question mark heading into 2015, that leads to his replacement this year, Juliao. The Brazilian is on loan from Fluminense this year and the question is whether he's done well enough for Kansas City to pick up his loan option and make him a permanent member of the club. That should all come down to his teachability in Peter Vermes' eyes to become a more well-rounded defender.

Other than Juliao, the other thing KC needs to do on the wings is bring in depth. Sinovic can't continue to play 3,500 minutes a season at the level he does, pretty soon he's going to need a break or he's going to get an injury that would put him out for a while. After waiving Gardner and Jerome, KC never really filled that gap in the team. So finding an outside back or two either via the draft or other means is something that should be a priority for KC.

The other priority has to be getting their center back position resolved. Whether the team re-signs Collin or not is the first thing. If that doesn't happen the questions become how is Opara recovering from his injury and is KC willing to put that much faith in a defender who has shown to be quite injury prone over the course of his career. After Collin, Opara, and Belser, KC still has Palmer-Brown, Ellis, and even Lawrence Olum to play center back. Finding another starter if Collin is gone and depending on Opara's health could be a big priority for KC.

But in the end with the defenders there are currently too many questions regarding health and contracts to really make a great guess for where the team will become the 2015 season.

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