Continuing to work up from the back on our review of the Sporting Kansas City season, we reach the defense. You can read my review of the goalkeeper position here. Sporting's defense in 2015 suffered one of the main issues that plagued the team during their 2014 run. Injuries were a big issue for the team with Chance Myers, Ike Opara, and Seth Sinovic, all three considered starters, missed considerable time due to different injuries. At one point in the season, KC had the best defensive record in the league, allowing the fewest goals in the league. Unfortunately after the 5-0 drubbing by San Jose, KC started leaking goals the rest of the season, allowing 20 over their last 12 games to finish the season with 45 goals against, the fourth most in the Western Conference.
Saad Abdul-Salaam - KC's second of three first round picks in the 2015 Superdraft, Abdul-Salaam started the season on loan with Jon Kempin at San Antonio, before being recalled in mid-May after starting five games for the NASL club. With injuries and squad rotation, Abdul-Salaam was able to get plenty of time over the course of the season at both left and right back as well as some time at winger to kill time late in some games. Abdul-Salaam improved so much over the course of the season that he displaced Jalil Anibaba who had started the 2015 season at right back with Chance Myers still recovering from injury. He finished second among KC's three rookies with 1,074 minutes played in league play, but down the stretch seemed at times to be preferred over his counterpart, Amadou Dia, even at left back.
Jalil Anibaba - Anibaba started the season as KC's starting right back after coming to the club as part of the Aurelien Collin trade with Orlando City. Anibaba did well enough for KC defensively and gave KC a big body for set pieces that helped in KC's 3-2 win over Philadelphia early in the season. He picked up a quadricep injury in early July that limited him the rest of the season. He only made one start after KC's 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake on 6/21, and that was against Seattle at home when KC rested the majority of their starters for the US Open Cup final. He made just two other appearances after his injury, both substitution appearances. His injury combined with the emergence of Abdul-Salaam to play right back made him a bit expendable.
Matt Besler - Despite the number of goals that KC allowed this year, Besler, Sporting KC's captain, may have had his best season with the club. He didn't get a ton of credit, but Besler took on a much larger role defensively this year. With Collin traded in the offseason, Ike Opara going down injured again, along with Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic, Besler at times had a lot more recovery work to do in settling the defense and keeping it organized, sometimes with two rookies and a converted wing back, and some times with a pair of rookies and a teenager with him. He did so playing the most league games he has since 2011. He also set a career high for assists this year, with only one coming from one of his long throws.
Marcel de Jong - 2015 probably wasn't the year that de Jong envisioned when he came to MLS. The Canadian international played in just 13 games for KC, starting 11 of them. Similar to Anibaba, de Jong saw his time late in the season really shrink. He made just three appearances for KC after the beginning of August, starting two games and coming on as a substitute in the 5-0 thrashing by San Jose. Like Anibaba with the emergence of Abdul-Salaam and Dia, de Jong could become expendable, but that may also depend on the long term health of Sinovic.
Amadou Dia - KC's other defensive rookie played the most minutes of any of KC's three first round picks, playing 1,317 minutes. Like his rookie counterpart, Abdul-Salaam, Dia kept more experienced wingbacks on the bench as the season went on with his play. Dia's minutes actually fell late in the season, like de Jong and Anibaba, as he lost minutes to Sinovic and Abdul-Salaam, but in the playoffs with both Sinovic and Myers hurt, Peter Vermes went with his two rookie outside backs. It speaks well of the strides that both players made in their rookie season.
Kevin Ellis - Speaking of strides, there's probably not one player on this list that made as big of strides this year as Ellis. KC's second homegrown player was once again thrust into a large number of minutes in 2015 due to injury. Once Opara went down, Ellis became Kansas City's starting center back next to Besler. Ellis played in a career high, 30 games, starting 28 of them, and played the fourth most minutes on the team, 2,335, behind only Besler, Benny Feilhaber, and Dom Dwyer. And despite being listed at only 5'9", he was a major threat on set pieces, scoring four league goals this past year, good for fourth on the team, and added another in the playoffs, all with his head off of set pieces. For all the good work he did though he was also a point of contention with his play as he had poor play during the season which were really apparent because of the way KC played out of the back, either with poor passing or some poor choices when he would make runs forward. I think a lot of the anger though came from the fact that he was a converted wingback and KC didn't bring in another true central defender when Opara went down.
Chance Myers - Missed the first few months of the 2015 season still recovering from his Achillies tear that he suffered in 2014. When he did return, Myers was solid, but still struggled with some other injuries. He was limited to just 10 starts and 13 appears for KC. At times he still looked to be a step slower than his top speed before the injury, which isn't incredibly surprising given the nature of it. Next season is going to be big for Myers with a full preseason to continue to work back fully from his lingering injuries, and with the likes of Abdul-Salaam coming along last year he'll certainly be pushed for minutes.
Ike Opara - Looked set for a monster break out season in 2015, and fulfilling the potential that saw him go third overall in the 2010 MLS Superdraft. He was KC's leading goalscorer early in the season was a massive threat on set pieces and was a solid partner for Besler in defense. Unfortunately he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the sixth game of the season and his year was done. It's the four time in his five pro seasons that Opara has missed significant time with an injury. He's certainly a strong, very capable defender, but his inability to keep healthy is a risk that KC has to be running low on patience for. It's what made acquiring him from San Jose so cheap. I don't doubt that Opara will be back in 2016, but I think he's going to have a lot of competitions for the starting spot next to Besler next year. And if he does win it, he's going to be on a short leash. Another long term injury and he'll be gone.
Erik Palmer-Brown - Sporting KC's youngest player had a career high in games played (7), started (4), and minutes (376). He missed time in 2015 while with the US U20 team at the U20 World Cup as well as other tournaments. when KC was struggling though Palmer-Brown had been unable to displace Ellis next to Besler in central defense. A bit of a concern, but the kid is still just 18. The hope at this point has to be that he either has a Matt Miazga break out season for Sporting or that he is loaned to the Swope Park Rangers to get regular playing time like will hopefully happen to Jon Kempin.
Seth Sinovic - Like his partner on the other wing, Myers, Sinovic missed quite a bit of time this year with injury. A concussion against DC United in early May caused him to miss the majority of the season as he didn't return until late August. When he did return though Sinovic didn't seem to be at the same level that he'd been at pre-injury. Judgment and speed just seemed a little off for him after the injury. Hopefully a full offseason and preseason will see him get back to his old level. But like Myers, he has a young player behind him in Dia that looks ready to step up.
Looking towards 2016
Robb Heineman stole a bit of my thunder yesterday when he mentioned how the team needed to find a high-quality center back. With Opara's injury history I'm not sure how much you can rely on him to be able to go in 2016. I'd like to have higher hopes for him, but he hasn't given much of a reason to with his injuries. He's a good player and would help out KC a lot if he was healthy. But that if has gotten a lot bigger as the years have gone on. And while Ellis didn't do a horrible job at center back, his position is one that Sporting really needs to look to upgrade in the offseason if they're wanting to compete for more trophies in 2016.
I'd like to see Palmer-Brown get more time next year, everyone from the club to the national team coaches talk up his ability and his high ceiling, in 2016 I'd hope we'd get to see more of it. He's shown flashes at times, but needs more game play to really step up. That seems more likely to happen at the USL level with the Rangers at this point though.
The other area that I think KC needs to address a little bit in the offseason is their depth at outside back. Not necessarily needing to add more to it, but actually to reduce some of the players the team currently has. At this time KC has six players currently whose primary position with the team is outside back. With Abdul Salaam, Anibaba, de Jong, Dia, Myers, and Sinovic all predominately outside backs, there's probably some space to cut some fat and cap space there. Outside Abdul-Salaam and Dia, they're all making over $100,000, ranging from Anibaba's $120,000 to de Jong's $180,000. Myers and Sinovic both have tenure with the team on their side, but Myers' injury issues again coming up and Sinovic's play post concussion have to give at least a little pause. Anibaba meanwhile is the least expensive of the experienced outside backs and did good, but not exceptional at that position early in the season. With de Jong, if he provides a lot more to the attack than the other five do, and is also able to play the wing position as he did against Columbus this year. At the same time, de Jong's Canadian citizenship may make him the most appealing trade, specifically for the Canadian clubs.
In the end, heading into 2016, KC needs to look to add a center back who can at the least be a replacement for Ellis and at best push and potentially beat out Opara for the starting job. Out wide it becomes a matter of needing to probably shed at least one of their outside backs.