Friday, September 23, 2016

Sporting KC Competing in MLS 3.0 with an MLS 2.0 Mindset?

Since the Kansas City Wizards rebranded as Sporting Kansas City, the club has begun to rise to the top of MLS in terms of on the field performance, image, and structure of the organization. In the span of a few years Kansas City went from being one of the laughing stocks of MLS to the envy of the league, the "Soccer Capital of America" and MLS Cup champions in 2013. Since then though it seems like the club has been in a bit of a slow decline, yes there was the 2015 US Open Cup, the club's third trophy in four years, but a string of poor league performances, early playoff exits, and poor player personnel moves have caused some of the shine to come off of the club and begin to create some questions about the ability of Kansas City to continue to be one of the league's elite with their current strategies and policies.

Sporting KC's rise to the "Soccer Capital" came as MLS really started to embrace the "MLS 2.0" moniker, Don Garber had first used the term back in 2008 as the next step in the league's evolution, beginning with the expansion into Canada with Toronto FC, the addition of the designated player rule, and the establishing of the homegrown player process. By 2011 MLS was in full 2.0 mode with most teams having had at least one designated player and homegrown players starting to regularly be signed by teams. While other MLS teams were adding designated players with more globally recognized names, Kansas City didn't have that luxury simply because of their location in the United States and their status in the league at the time. KC under Peter Vermes, instead went for a more focused and simple approach. The club worked to build a consistent lineup that played a specific formation and style that would cause teams trouble in MLS. Vermes' high pressure caused teams plenty of problems for other teams, but also had its growing pains for Kansas City as the team shifted their pressure point higher up the field or further back depending how other teams exploited Kansas City's set up. But Kansas City's set style of play gave them a direction that they planned to go with each and every year, and because of that Vermes was able to focus his acquisitions and draft strategy with that in mind. KC found success grabbing players like Aurelien Collin, Julio Cesar, and Oriol Rosell off the European scrap heap, while drafting well with the likes of CJ Sapong and Dom Dwyer. With those acquisitions, Vermes was also get the rest of the core players on the team to buy into the system and play the style KC wanted, with Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, and Graham Zusi all coming into real prominence with their national teams during this early stretch.

KC really started to look like one of the smartest teams in the league, off the field the team was appealing to MLS's long sought after 18-35 demographic, bringing strong attendance to Children's Mercy Park, while on the field they did something that was lacking a lot in Kansas City at the time, win. The 2011 KC Royals finished with their 16th losing season in the last 17 years, and hadn't been to the playoffs since 1985. The Chiefs had just come off winning the AFC West in 2010, but lost in the playoffs at home, making it 17 years without a playoff win for the Chiefs. The team would also go on to a combined 9-23 over the next two seasons. All of that combined to help Kansas City look really good, not just in the Kansas City area to sports fans, but in the US to soccer fans. It was a perfect storm for Sporting Kansas City to really establish themselves in the KC sport scene by being successful and marketing themselves correctly locally.

The smart work on and off the field paid off in full when Sporting Kansas City lifted MLS Cup at home after defeating Real Salt Lake on penalty kicks in 2013. The club was on top of MLS and it was seen as the crowning moment and the fitting end of the rebranding chapter of Sporting KC's history with the rise from an afterthought to the league's best.

Since then though, the club has fallen back to the mean and at times seems to be falling behind other teams that are now doing some of the things Sporting KC innovated better than them. Around 2013 people were talking how MLS was starting to transition from MLS 2.0 to 3.0 with the smart work of teams like LA, Seattle and KC, examples of this came from different sources, one focusing on each of those clubs' ability to develop their own players worthy of designated player contracts (Omar Gonzalez, Osvaldo Alonso, Matt Besler, and Graham Zusi). The transition started to come up more with the addition of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) which gave teams another way to acquire higher priced players without sacrificing more of their cap space. With the new TAM mechanism along with General Allocation Money, and the expanded Designated Player rule, other teams were able to be make better player acquisitions, improving the quality of their team. At the same time, teams that had been spending money on the team but not succeeding on the field started to be smarter about their additions and bringing in players that fit, like Toronto FC. Teams willing to use all their GAM, TAM, and DP slots were doing so in much smarter ways on the field, allowing them to find more success. As tends to happen when a team is successful, other teams attempt to replicate how they became successful, adjusting it and making their team more successful. While other teams were doing this, Sporting Kansas City continued to follow their strategy that had made them successful in MLS 2.0. Unfortunately the success that they'd had on the field started to wain as off the field work wasn't as successful.

One of the big parts of Kansas City's roster make up was by building through the draft as I'd mentioned earlier, five of the 11 players that started MLS Cup 2013 were drafted by Kansas City, and all since Vermes took over as the club's technical director. Unfortunately the team's drafting of players the last few years have not been as successful. Since Sporting KC draft Dom Dwyer in 2012, only five of the 16 players drafted have appeared in a single league game for Kansas City, and of those five, just three (Connor Hallisey, Amadou Dia, and Saad Abdul-Salaam) did it with any regularity. That trio also came from just one draft, when KC had three first round picks. In the other three drafts, KC has had just one first round pick, selecting Mikey Lopez in the first round in 2013. KC traded their other two first round picks (although with three second round picks). KC's 2014 first round pick and a 2015 second round pick were used to acquire Benny Feilhaber from the New England Revolution, a move that I'd say has paid off in full. Other trades saw KC acquire Ike Opara from San Jose for a second round pick in 2013 (that trade has worked out pretty well), a first round pick for TAM in 2016 and a second round pick in 2016 for Andy Gruenebaum.

So while maybe not always using picks on selecting players, KC did arguably improve the team with those additions (Feilhaber especially). At the same time though KC hasn't had young players that they have drafted step up into the first team from the draft. That wouldn't be an issue for Kansas City, except as 2015 showed, KC does a lot of their building through the draft. Missing on so many players over the course of four years put KC in a whole in terms of young talent that the Sporting academy doesn't quite look ready to fill.

Instead KC has looked overseas to fill a number of those slots, both among younger players and with veterans. In terms of young talent, the best that is currently on KC (and not out on loan) is probably Jimmy Medranda, who is finally coming well after being signed as a teenager in 2013. He's established himself as KC's starting left back at this point and for a period of time earlier in the season was Sporting's best player. Other signings though haven't worked out so well when brought in from abroad, Jordi Quintilla, for example, for his heroics in scoring the clinching penalty kick in the 2015 US Open Cup final, couldn't seem to establish himself in the lineup for KC and then struggled to do so when loaned to the Swope Park Rangers, before his eventual release earlier this year right before the guaranteed contract date. Mechack Jerome is another younger KC player who didn't work out for Sporting, getting released by the club shortly after the club's exit from the 2013-2014 CCL.

Many of the rest of the additions for Sporting KC though have been more in their prime of their career when signed, and with many of those, KC has tried to follow the same strategy that they've used in prior seasons, picking up cast offs and injury prone players to come in and contribute. That's also had some mixed bags, because while Sporting hit things out of the part with the acquisition of Krisztian Nemeth, who was able to stay healthy during his one season in Kansas City, and Soni Mustivar has been a solid, addition in the center of midfield, the club has also had players like Toni Dovale who come in with some expectations and fail to meet them. Probably the most successful acquisition since the 2013 MLS Cup has been the re-acquisition of Roger Espinoza before the 2015, and his injury that ended his 2015 season lines up with Kansas City's slow slide down the standings during the 2015 season. The list of foreign signings who have failed to impress and have been gone in less than a year though has continued to grow as the likes of Dovale, Quintilla, Marcel de Jong, and Jorge Claros have all seen their tenures in Kansas City cut short despite the success of the likes of Espinoza, Nemeth, and Mustivar.

There's also been those injury prone players who haven't really worked out, the most recent one of those is Nuno Coelho, who looked like a solid, important addition to KC's back line early in the season, but has started just four games since late May, never going the full 90 minutes in any of those games, only making it past half time in two of them. When he's starting he's good, but it's a question of whether he can consistently do it, based on his history this season and with his prior clubs it's certainly one that Vermes is going to have to ask. If he can't, it's another in a growing list of disappointing signings.

The missed signings haven't just been in the international market either, Sporting's additions within MLS haven't worked out either as the team has moved on since 2013. In and out have come the likes of Jalil Anibaba, Servando Carrasco, Amobi Okugo, Bernardo Anor, and Andy Gruenebaum. And this year's crop doesn't look like they'll be around long term either with that headlined by the league's first "free agent" signing, Justin Mapp, who has appeared in just six games, failing to able to stay healthy for Kansas City.

Every team has to deal with their fair share of failures when it comes to signings, both within the league and from outside, but Sporting's list of failures over the last couple years are starting to grow quite a bit longer than the successes at this point. Something that didn't seem to happen in the first few years of Sporting's rebranding under Vermes.

The most successful one in the last few years didn't stick around though either, as Krisztian Nemeth departed for Qatar this past offseason. You can choose to blame whoever you want for the departure, some fans blame the team for it, some fans blame Nemeth, but from both sides it seems after the season, KC came to Nemeth offering to renegotiate his contract in good faith after the season he'd produced for the club. Once the door was open for renegotiating, both sides couldn't reach an agreement on how much was appropriate, the relationship soured and Nemeth was sold. It's not the last time Vermes' contract negotiating skills have come up, as they're now front and center with another player, as Benny Feilhaber is out of contract after the season, is currently able to sign a pre-contract with any club outside of MLS, and as of yet has not had much in the way of negotiations with the team about an extension. It's a strategy that Vermes has used in years past because of his dual role as head coach and technical director. If KC lose Feilhaber without even offering him a new contract, it'll be another black eye for Vermes in his player negotiating skills, less than a year after Nemeth's departure. The Feilhaber saga brings up another job of KC's and Vermes' strategy that may need to change as MLS becomes a more visible league. With more teams around the world taking a look at MLS for talent, delaying negotiations on players in the final year of their contract is a recipe for disaster. Waiting until after a player can sign a pre-contract is just asking for that player to go and sign abroad somewhere if there is interest. In the past that interest was minimal at best, but with an MVP finalist, maybe it'll take losing a player like Feilhaber to see that the tactic needs to change. KC has previously negotiated in season on other players, specifically Roger Espinoza in 2012 after his run at the Olympics and Matt Besler and Graham Zusi after their time at the 2014 World Cup. The in season negotiating worked on the latter two, but Espinoza seemed completely set on a move abroad. Still it's a strategy that Vermes may well need to change if he wants to retain some of his best talent.

Another issue with Nemeth's departure that has become a reoccurring theme now for Kansas City is the club's replacing top level talent with lesser talent hoping for similar results. With Nemeth the club had Justin Mapp and Brad Davis who could both step in and play the wing. The hope was that the pair would be able to pick up the goal scoring slack as a committee with the departure of Nemeth. Unfortunately as this season has shown, the pair has not, as Mapp has fewer appearances than Nemeth had goals, and Davis, who was expected to provide additional service for KC, has provided more goals (2) than he has assists (1).

Nemeth isn't the only example of losing talent and failing to replace it in the last few years, Oriol Rosell is a big one that comes to mind. KC tried to replace the Spaniard with Jorge Claros, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber, Servando Carrasco, and even James Marcelin (who was signed in the offseason and waived in preseason) all to varying degrees of success in KC's high pressure system that needs the defensive midfielder to be good with his distribution. The best KC has gotten out of that is Soni Musitvar who still struggles at times but has been an adequate replacement for Rosell.

Aurelien Collin is another player that KC for the longest time failed to replace adequately. The main issue here was the inability by Ike Opara to stay healthy in 2015 (2014 as well when Collin was still with the team). Opara's been healthy in 2016 for the most part, but Coelho's injury issues since late May along with Matt Besler's drop in form and absence with the US national team haven't helped the recovery of Kansas City's center back situation.

Besler's performance as a designated player along with KC's other three designated players during the last few years is another area that hasn't helped Sporting KC in their slow slide since the 2013 MLS Cup. KC has gotten far less than a DP level performance from their four DPs they've had on their roster since 2013. The pair signed new contracts with KC in 2013 using the newly instituted "retention funds" that allowed the club to retain certain players who were near the end of their contract. Then after both were consistent performers for the US national team in the summer of 2014, the pair were signed to designated player contracts on July 19th of that year, fending off potential interest from Europe. Since then, further national team call ups, injuries and form have held back the two players from consistently playing at a DP level. In the 79 league games played since the pair signed their DP contracts, Besler has played in 61 of those games (77%), while Zusi has played in 57 (72%), and while Besler's numbers are harder to quantify as a defender, Zusi has been a part of just 20 (7 goals, 13 assists) of KC's 106 goals (19%) since he was made a DP. If you're giving these two DP contracts you're going to be expecting more from them on the field than what is currently being provided.

KC's other two DPs haven't performed much better. After a solid start to his Sporting KC career, Claudio Bieler lost his starting spot to Dom Dwyer late in 2013 and never earned it back in 2014. He scored just a pair of league goals in his second season with KC and returned to Argentina in the offseason. Then this year, Sporting KC brought Diego Rubio in on a young DP contract on loan at the beginning of the season. While the young DP contract offers KC some advantages due to its lower cap hit, Rubio hasn't really been a big contributor to the team. From the time he was signed until June 30th when his loan was extended through the end of the regular season and he was no longer a DP, Rubio appeared in just nine games, only two of them starts and scored just one goal. Of his seven sub appearances, only two were more than 10 minutes, while the young DP designation makes it hurt less, playing that little with the "DP" tag on your name isn't something that's going to give fans lots of excitement.

Meanwhile elsewhere around the league in this stretch, other teams are really starting to get production from their designated players on the field, from the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, to Bradley Wright-Phillips, to even David Accam, more teams are getting goal scoring performances from their designated players. Even for all his issues with actually playing, when he does Frank Lampard has shown he can still run a team and score goals for NYCFC. With more designated players in the league than ever before, and more producing results on the field it seems, having two of those slots currently filled by players that really aren't holding up their end of the contract can be a real hindrance to a team, especially in MLS with its cap restrictions.

For all the issues with their DPs though, Vermes has done some good work to try to have the roster ready, using TAM and GAM to pay down the likes of Espinoza and Dwyer, who according to the players' union both make over the roster max. For KC to compete though they're going to have to start getting more production from their DPs, whether it's Besler, Zusi and a third DP, or any combination that sees Besler or Zusi no longer DPs.

In the end it just seems that since Sporting KC lifted MLS Cup in 2013 the club has gotten a little complacent in their work. Both from the team on the field and in the work done by the scouting department in bringing in players. The good news is that Vermes has already built this team once and I don't doubt that he can do it again, really I think he just needs some kind of kick in the butt to get them going again. Maybe the current slide that has lasted much of the season and could very well see them miss the playoffs is the kick that they need to get things turned around and headed back up again. For all the fun talk about winning the US Open Cup and competing in the CCL, it's the league season and playoff run especially that will ultimately decide whether or not Vermes and his staff keep their jobs. And after the last few years with KC tailing off late in 2014 and 2015 and then struggling for long stretches early and late in 2016, Vermes seat could begin to get quite warm in 2017 if he doesn't make changes to address it. To do that though he may need to go about changing some of his player acquisition strategies that he's used for the past six years with some decent amount of success, but in an MLS that is continuing to evolve and change quickly, sticking to your old ways when they appear to be less and less successful is not going to keep you around for the long term.


Anonymous said...

This was a great read Mike!

Unknown said...

Really well said!

I too agree their approach and mindset needs to change. I feel like Zusi and Besler were great PR moves and necessary at the time. But now you've acquired all of this TAM yet you haven't paid their contracts down out of DP status. Nor are you aggressive in finding really good DP's. The Nemo deal NEEDED to get done. You instead go and get a young promising player in Rubio, but don't play him nor do we change formations (to say a 4-4-2) which would benefit Rubio and Zusi. The last part aside, you decided to go a much cheaper route. Basically you want to play moneyball.

Well, that is understandable but in that case you need to approach building much more like FCD. We are not taking the draft seriously enough. We aren't singing homegrown kids nor are we playing them. Salloi gets loaned out because he can't get minutes on SPR. EPB gets loaned out because we give minutes to Olum, Ellis, and even Coelho. You go out and start a USL team but then don't play Lindsay, Tekesky, Hernandez, Kamal, Little, Armstrong, Wilkinson, or Selbol. I mean let them sub in sometimes at least. Hell they aren't even playing Kempin. anymore.

Winning at that level should be important but not so important you hurt player development.

Hopefully they overhaul their approach.