This offseason poses one of the toughest challenges yet for Peter Vermes and Co. It's already off to a fast start with several high-profile players out (with some more the subject of rumors).
The Kansas City Star
Here's the basic storyline for the next few months: Kansas City needs to not only continue to improve its roster -- namely, finding the pieces that can finally get them over the hump (and the Houston Dynamo) and into the MLS Cup in 2013 -- but Vermes and Co. will need to build a roster capable of competing on three fronts: The MLS regular season, CONCACAF Champions League and defending its U.S. Open Cup trophy.
How will you cope with the often confusing rumors, the even more confusing MLS roster rules and the general uncertainty that the next few weeks will bring? (There are other side-effects to the MLS offseason. Stir-craziness is inevitable. Longing for the start of the season is assured. Debating expensive trips to preseason locales.)
Hopefully, you can follow these four easy steps and make it to March without any emotional scars.
Step 1: Relax.
But Roger Espinoza is gone! Matt Besler is unsigned and Euro teams are sniffing around! Julio Cesar is out! Michael Harrington is now with the Timbers! Sporting has just a handful of trusted defenders under contract!
Take a deep breath. I know. You can't press the update button on Twitter fast enough. You're gobbling up "news" from every outlet you can find. If you're new to this or even if this isn't your first rodeo, it's all a bit, um, overwhelming.
You think you're all right, hop on Twitter and then, before you know it, you're googling "out-of-contract" Spanish attacking midfielders in their earlier 20s. (Or worse: Guti.)
In sports, roster turnover isn't anything new. It's especially more prevalent in soccer with limited roster space, thousands of available players and multiple player-movement windows. It doesn't help that "news" these days is whatever someone types in on Twitter with the five characters that spell out "rumor" in it.
I understand KC skepticism after watching 10+ years of the Royals and Chiefs promise to change things every offseason with no payoff. However, Sporting KC hasn't had those same issues the last four years -- each season has seen improvement from the last.
In the past four years alone, Kansas City have said goodbye to club legends (Jimmy Conrad, Davy Arnaud, Kevin Hartman, Josh Wolff), superstars (Omar Bravo), talented players who needed a new venue (Jack Jewsbury), talented players who blossomed spectacularly in a new setting (Herculez Gomez), talented players who became increasingly frustrating (Ryan Smith), talented players who didn't fit the system (Jeferson, Milos Stojcev), and underdog fan-favorites beloved for their underdog status (Birahim Diop).
While some of those losses stung (I'm still learning to accept the Diop departure; I'm taking it one day and a time), letting go of some of those players paved the way for the team that made KC an Eastern Conference powerhouse.
Jimmy Nielsen took over for Hartman. Dumping Conrad made way, eventually, for Besler. Trading Jewsbury opened up playing time for Graham Zusi. (You could argue that just by signing Jeferson and handing him the starting midfield job it pushed Zusi to become what he is.) Letting Arnaud walk freed up room for Espinoza. The mistakes of Stojcev and Smith opened the door for Jacob Peterson and Paulo Nagamura.
What we don't know: What if Espinoza's exit unleashes Peterson Joseph for an entire season as the creative force this team has needed? Or Oriol Rosell claims Cesar's spot and doesn't ever let it go? (I'll grant you the Besler situation is a bit murkier and more stressful. But, remember, in May 2010 we weren't even sure if Besler had a future with the club after a disastrous 4-1 loss to Los Angeles. Perspective is very important.)
These things are cyclical and impossible to judge as they are happening. I realize that's weird in this superlative world where everything has to immediately be the best/worst/most something or other.
Which is why it's important to relax. Enjoy the ride.
Until the preseason starts in 46 days. Then it's OK to start getting stressed out again.
Step 2: Know the Score
Major League Soccer is a confusing league with a dozen different drafts, international slots, allocation money and complex roster designations. Even those of us who follow the league closely can get a little flustered by the complexity of it all. (Discovery signings?)
Before you start your transition into a future career as an amateur Sporting Accountant, make sure you study the most-recent MLS Player's Union salaries, the MLS roster rules* and understand how an MLS roster is built.** And, even then, you might still need a calculator, a piece of scratch paper and some mylanta.
*I sometimes like to have this near by when I delve into the MLS roster rules.
**But know this: Contract details and specific roster designations are as closely guarded by the team and the league as the location of the warehouse where they filmed the moon landing.
The first sub-step in this category is to know the current roster situation.
Right now, Kansas City has 22 players on its roster; which means they have room for 8 new players theoretically. Besler is currently the only player out-of-contract with the team and I didn't include him in that group. (Signing him should be among the team's highest priorities the next few weeks.)
The official list of players who've left: Julio Cesar, Neven Markovic, Cyprian Hedrick and Konrad Warzycha (waived), Korede Aiyegbusi (option declined), and Michael Harrington (traded to Portland). Roger Espinoza's move won't be official until the international transfer window opens in January. (Though, it's close.)
The first new player in: Defender/midfielder Josh Gardner, who joins KC from Montreal. He is a self-admitted journeyman who has trained with this team before and projects as depth in midfield and left back. (His previous contract had him at $54,120 a year if you're keeping score at home. The departed Markovic was $90,000; Harrington was $125,000.)
Sporting KC have just two international players: Oriol Rosell and Peterson Joseph. KC have six international roster slots open heading into 2013 -- they will get back the slot they traded for Bobby Convey last season.
It also helps to know when the player-adding mechanisms begin.
The MLS trading window opened on Monday -- with Harrington leaving so KC could get "allocation" money*. The first stage of the re-entry draft (which is essentially MLS free agency) is this Friday. The second stage of the re-entry draft is a week later, Dec. 14. (You should read up on the the re-entry basics.)
*Allocation money is great. It's like duct tape for an MLS technical director. That money can be used to sign players new to MLS, re-sign an existing MLS player and "buy-down" a player's salary budget charge to get it below the league maximum of $350,000 per player. You can see the benefit. The league does not reveal how much allocation money a team has.
The international transfer window opens on Jan. 1. Following not too far after that is the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 17 in Indianapolis. (Kansas City will have two picks: One in the first round, #14, and one in the second round, #33. The #32 pick, acquired in the Stephane Auvray trade from New York, was dealt to Montreal for Gardner.)
Then, on Jan. 20, the preseason begins for Sporting KC in Tucson, Ariz. (Kansas City will train in Arizona for two weeks and compete in the The Desert Friendlies; KC will also spend most of the month of February in Orlando -- Feb. 9-20 -- training and competing in the 2013 Disney Pro Soccer Classic.)
Step 3: Trust Your Sources
Rumors. Sigh. There's nothing you can do about them. Some come from legit sources (like, say, Robb Heineman's twitter account), some from slightly less legit sources.* Some come from Europe (scroll down to The Sun or search "BESLER")... trust them at your own discretion.
*Twitter can be such a confusing place too. Sometimes the lifespan of a rumor on Twitter can be measured in nano-seconds. By the time I wrapped up recording the Kick the Ball Podcast yesterday (SHAMELESS PLUG!), a rumor had already been born, reached puberty and then was killed by a dozen people. Sigh.
We don't do rumors here on this blog. We used to, once upon a time. But Tod Palmer, myself and the rest traffic only in sourced material. If you're reading it here, it's because someone close to the situation told us about it.
But, if rumors are what you're after, there are a few trusted sources who can help you out. If you see Down the Byline's Mike Kuhn, This Week In Sporting co-host Andy Edwards, The Backpost's Thad Bell or MLSSoccer.com's Steve Brisendine report something, it's usually pretty close to the truth. Also, if you see it on No Short Corners assume it's pretty safe too. Soccer by Ives and Steve Goff at Soccer Insider are also both pretty reliable.
There are others that I'm surely missing who you can trust. I apologize for not listing them all -- you could fill out an entire match-day roster with Sporting KC bloggers these days.
Step 4: Keep an Open Mind
This is likely the toughest part. It's so easy to respond emotionally (mostly, negatively) to something immediately. But, how many of you want me to sift through your Twitter timelines for your reaction to the Jacob Peterson signing last January?
I'm not telling you to suspend your suspicions or to swallow your unease. Hardly. Vermes and Co. aren't perfect (Pablo Escobar, Sunil Chhetri, maybe Bobby Convey, etc., etc.). A healthy dose of misgiving is perfectly healthy. But if you're goal is to stay sane during the swirling rumors, avoiding a knee-jerk reaction is almost more important than the previous three steps!
Recent history, anyway, suggests you trust the process. Over the last three seasons, the team has brought in a bevy of new players who have become fixtures (Nielsen, Nagamura, Collin), dealt other players to create space to develop new players who became fixtures (Chance Myers, Besler and Zusi) and have drafted players who became key fixtures too (C.J. Sapong, Teal Bunbury).
Not every player who comes in and not every rumor you here is going to blow you away. But that's fine. It's part of this crazy business we call the MLS offseason.
If you're relaxed (deep breath before commenting), if you know the score (and that a roster isn't going to be 30 superstars), if you consider the source (and toss aside suspicious ones) and you stay reasonable (you never know how something will turn out)... you just might survive these next 40-60 days with your sanity.
After that, feel free to return to normal fandemonium.