It was a warm August evening at Sporting Park, when Peter Vermes glanced upwards at the south scoreboard that displayed a 3-0 deficit to San Jose. The longest tenured coach in club history since Bob Gansler took a few moments to assess the situation, letting out a deep breath before looking back at his bench. On this night, Graham Zusi wasn’t available, so Vermes elected to start his next-best option at forward, Jacob Peterson, meaning he had no other go-to playmaker to try and stop the bleeding.
On surface level, there isn’t much to this anecdote. Coaches roll with the players available. But therein lies the underlying issue that plagued Sporting Kansas City for much of the second half of the season: a lack of depth.
Now entering the part of the MLS offseason where deals start getting inked, Sporting KC and its leadership understand moves need to be made. Undeniably there is a core group of players in-house who are solid enough to win, but as last season proved time and time again, there are definite needs to address this offseason.
Here are five of those needs Sporting KC should look to fill heading into its 2016 campaign:
Allocating resources for scouting during the offseason is a key component for any coach. And while it may seem trivial for Vermes as technical director to hone in on something as simple as how tall a player is, it couldn’t be more imperative for Sporting KC’s success moving forward.
Sporting KC was severely outmatched last season in the air once Ike Opara went down with an Achilles’ injury in April, as he and rookie Saad Abdul-Salaam were the only players on the roster standing 6 feet 2 or taller. In fact, the team’s four regular starters at forward — Dom Dwyer, Krisztian Nemeth, Jacob Peterson and Zusi — measured 5-foot-9, 5-foot-11, 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-10, respectively.
Before Opara’s injury, Sporting KC averaged 64.5 successful duels per game. That rate dropped to an average of 54.1 per game in the 28 matches following the injury. Of course, success with duels is sometimes an arbitrary or loose statistic in that it isn’t just tallying aerial duels. However, it does indicate an adjustment in how Sporting KC played once its tallest and most athletic player went down.
This is what makes a guy like Alan Gordon, who’s out of contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy, such an interesting player to look at as a possible offseason acquisition. At 6-foot-3, Gordon isn’t technically gifted, but he’s a notorious threat in the air, which would bode well for a team that averaged 16.8 crosses per game this past season, including 67 crosses in the final three regular season matches.
Speaking of Gordon, Sporting KC could desperately use at least one or two more options at striker to backup either Nemeth or Dwyer depending on any offseason transfers. Peterson is a fun alternative, and is certainly a workhorse who will run laps around opposing centerbacks, but he’s simply not fit to succeed at the position.
Another striker would help challenge whoever is the starting center forward come March. Dwyer didn’t have that this past season, though despite his relatively quiet season he maintained a strong work ethic; some may argue Nemeth was supposed to be his challenger, but it became apparent early on that Sporting KC was better off with both Nemeth and Dwyer on the field at the same time.
The good news is that in MLS, there’s no shortage of veteran players available up top. Gordon is a name I’ll keep throwing out because I think it makes a ton of sense for a gritty, grind-it-out-to-get-results team like Sporting KC. Jack McInerney (Columbus Crew SC) and Robbie Findley (Toronto FC) are also two names to keep an eye on this offseason. Both are out of contract with their previous clubs.
All of the wingers
Sporting KC’s wide play left much to be desired this past season. Zusi never quite found a rhythm, tallying 2 goals and 5 assists in a year he was paid north of $650,000. Peterson was the first choice off the bench, which says enough (though not enough can be said about his effort and leadership). Nemeth was a star, but most of his play was funneled toward the middle of the field, rather than stretching the defense out wide to send crosses into the box. Rookie Connor Hallisey was promising in the early going, but it quickly became evident he needed more time to improve with the ball at his feet.
How different might have things played out had Vermes and company been able to ink a few of the deals they just missed out on during the summer transfer window? We’ll never know. But this offseason does provide Sporting KC’s front office the opportunity to stay within the league to add depth, something Vermes has stressed repeatedly over the years. Add in the fact that Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman has said the team must also starting looking at contracted players, too, and there’s hope that next season will be a different story out wide.
One thing is for certain: Sporting KC wingers not named Krisztian Nemeth must be able to produce more than 3 goals and 8 assists across 34 regular-season games.
A “third” centerback
I’m hesitant to use the word third here, because I think that’s precisely the mind-set Sporting KC shouldn’t have entering this offseason. Here’s why: Opara has proven over the last two years to be among the top centerbacks in the league when healthy — when healthy. He’s set to return for the start of the 2015, but can he avoid the injury bug and finally make through an entire season healthy? That remains to be seen. Opara has played in just nine games over the last two seasons, and he’s never played more than 18 games in any given campaign. In comparison, Matt Besler hasn’t played in less than 23 regular-season games since 2010 with the then-Wizards. Besler played in 32 of Sporting KC’s 34 regularseason games this past year.
Vermes and company went all-in last season by not picking up another centerback. While Kevin Ellis was a suitable replacement, there was a glaring difference in the team’s defensive capabilities and assignments before and after April 11. Amobi Okugo was brought in midseason to aid in the defensive efforts, but he was not up to snuff on his conditioning to make the type of impact many thought he would.
So here’s what it comes down to: last offseason’s mistake cannot be repeated this time around. Sporting KC must look for a centerback of starting quality, while understanding the risk that Opara could stay healthy all season and that they’d be overspending for a glorified bench player.
In this case, overspending is a good thing.
Fill the roster
With MLS cutting rosters down from 30 to 28 players last offseason, teams more than ever needed examine their pieces to see which were worth letting go or holding onto.
Sporting KC had no such issue, though, because it couldn’t fill its roster.
Once again, failed transfers during the summer window played a major part in this. Luis Marin’s sudden departure in May no doubt did as well. But with depth clearly in issue early in the season, moves such as trading an international spot to Colorado midseason, cutting the available international spots down to two from three, seemed odd. There’s an argument to be made that there’s no use use filling a spot just to fill it, especially as it pertains to bringing in international prospects, but the fact remains that Sporting KC finished the season with just 25 players on the roster.
However, Don’t expect the same mistake this time around. That extra roster spot returns on Jan. 1, 2016, and Additional moves are expected to be made for players both in and out of contract. Stockpiled allocation money from the Kei Kamara and Aurelien Collin deals, plus targeted allocation money, is expected to factor into that.
In other words, expect to see 28 players suited up next season.
“That will be our strategy and I feel like this is an important offseason for us,” Heineman told NBC Pro Soccer Talk in November. “We tried to make more moves than we made during the summer window and honestly we weren’t able to finalize the deals. That was a little troublesome for us. It is not like we are going to break up our team because we have a good group of core players but I do feel like we have got to reinvigorate that core with a couple of pieces and it is important to go get them this offseason.”