The circumstance held more than a hint of familiarity — Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes standing in front of the media, examining the fallout of a forthcoming long-term absence.
Because in 2017, it was Tim Melia. In 2016, it was captain Matt Besler. And in 2015, it was Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara.
On Tuesday, Sporting KC learned it will be without midfielder and designated player Felipe Gutierrez, the richest man on its payroll, for the next 2-3 months after he had surgery to treat a sports hernia.
The latest absence equates — and arguably surpasses — its predecessors. Gutierrez was named MLS player of the month in March, his first month in the league. And despite sitting out all but 14 minutes over the past month, he remains tied for the Sporting KC team lead with five goals this season.
“You can’t deny it. He’s a very good player in our team,” Vermes said. “It’s not just because of the goals he scored. He’s just a very good soccer player — high quality. So we’re going to miss that for sure.”
Sporting KC occupies first place in the Western Conference, and Gutierrez’s arrival to Kansas City has undoubtedly held a significant role in that standing. He scored in four straight matches, despite his expected goal total reaching only 1.87, per American Soccer Analysis. He provided Sporting KC with elements the front office so desperately sought this offseason.
Quality finishing. Accuracy in the final third.
Gutierrez ranked fifth in MLS in shots on goal per 90 minutes among players who have been on the field for at least 200 minutes, and he was second among midfielders. As the games wore on, his presence in the middle opened the outside channels for wings Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi, who have rated well in their early-season outings.
The short of it: It’s a considerable absence, and it figures to most notably affect the production in the final third.
“Look, I’d love to have him available. I really would,” Vermes said. “But there’s nothing we can do other than come up with solutions in the meantime until he’s ready to play again.”
Those solutions will likely fall to some combination of Yohan Croizet and Jimmy Medranda. Although neither are a like-for-like replacement, they represent the original equation.
When Sporting KC convened for preseason in January, the roster remained fluid, and the chances of adding Gutierrez remained less than 50-50. The front office responded in kind, constructing its roster as if Gutierrez would not be part of it.
That’s where it stands for the next several weeks. And it's where it has stood over the last month. Sporting KC is 2-1-1 with Gutierrez out of the lineup, as he initially was prescribed rest. It scored six times against Vancouver without him. But it also fell below 1.0 expected goals in two of the four matches. It never dipped below 1.25 when he was in the starting lineup.
“We always talk about next man up on this team, and the responsibilities and roles of every position are clearly defined,” Besler said. “No matter where you’re playing on the field, you know exactly what’s expected of you. So there’s guys champing at the bit to get that opportunity.”
The timing of the injury is a test of optimism versus pessimism.
The optimism: Gutierrez should be back — and potentially fresh — for the stretch run. The surgery isn’t expected to have any lingering long-term effects. Vermes once had it as a player and believed he was fine once he was a couple of months removed from the operation.
The pessimism: Sporting KC will negotiate arguably the most difficult portion of its schedule with its most productive player of March as a spectator for May, June and potentially July.
“I had to talk him off the ledge because this is disappointing for him,” Vermes said. “But as I explained to him — it’s a blip in the screen when you’re talking about how long he’s going to be here, and we had to consider that. The great thing is that we’ll get him back. We just have to be patient with it.”