On a weekday morning this month, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes summoned front-office personnel into his workspace. The resulting conversation, framed around identifying potential player targets, resembled similar discussions over the past few winters. But with one key deviation.
As it embarks on a pivotal offseason, Sporting KC is operating under a significantly larger budget than it has in the past, sources told The Star. The ownership has committed club-record financial backing that, along with the team’s attractive position under the salary cap, would accommodate multiple high-priced acquisitions, the sources said.
Simply put: Sporting KC is prepared to spend. And spend big.
“They’re active in a marketplace they haven’t necessarily been active in over the past two, three, four years,” one player agent said. “They’re looking to make a splash — or maybe two or three splashes.”
Fewer than 24 hours after Sporting KC was eliminated in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, club CEO Robb Heineman said via Twitter that ownership would invest in a forward and attacking midfielder.
The Sporting KC technical staff has spent the initial weeks of the offseason shopping in the high-dollar tier for both of those positions, a project overseen by Vermes but spearheaded by director of player personnel Brian Bliss. Sporting KC has made it known to agents and foreign clubs that it can afford transfer fees in the neighborhood of $2-4 million, sources said. In MLS, players requiring those transfer fees are typically paid annual salaries between $800,000 and $2 million.
Sporting KC won’t settle for just one player, according to sources with knowledge of its thinking. Vermes and his staff continue to scout overseas targets, and with ownership’s blessing, the desired blueprint includes three acquisitions in that price range or just below it, either during the current winter or next summer’s transfer window. In addition to Heineman’s expressed desire to add a forward and an attacking midfielder, Sporting KC is in the market for a third attacking player or a center back, with backup central defenders Erik Palmer-Brown and Kevin Ellis not returning in 2018.
Whereas many MLS teams might face a road block to enact such a plan, Sporting KC encounters freedom of movement. Aided by the summer trade of striker Dom Dwyer, the team is well-placed to squeeze three expensive salaries under its salary cap.
Additions with the aforementioned price tag typically require designated player tags in MLS. Per league rules, each team is allowed only three designated players on its roster. Sporting KC already had three — Roger Espinoza, Gerso Fernandes and Graham Zusi — occupy the spots last year, and those players return with at least the same salary in 2018.
But the Dwyer trade will help neaten the process. In exchange for sending its All-Star striker to Orlando City SC, Sporting KC received $1.6 million in targeted (TAM) and general (GAM) allocation money. Although $700,000 of those funds were incentive-based, all of the incentives have already been achieved. Sporting KC expects to receive nearly 60 percent of its $1.6 million payout on Jan. 1, with the remainder reserved for 2019.
The allocation funds dig into the financial weeds of MLS rules, but they play an important role in cap management and solve problems that not even ownership dollars can alleviate. Sporting KC can — and will — use allocation money to “buy down” their designated player salaries, essentially erasing their DP status. The team plans to do that with all three players, according to sources.
That, in turn, will free up all three designated player spots. And it will open the door to potentially the most lucrative offseason in club history.
Vermes did not provide details on the team’s exact capabilities within the cap but did say, “The timing has put us in a good spot in regards to new acquisitions.”
Timing. And some foresight, too.
It’s not an option afforded to many MLS teams in regards to their designated players. Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley, for example, makes $6.5 million. No team in MLS comes close to approaching the allocation money needed to buy down a salary of that magnitude and flip it into a simple cap-charge number. And those reserves cannot be replenished by ownership.
But all three of Sporting Kansas City’s designated players in 2017 made south of $900,000. That’s well within the range to buy down the salary and eliminate the designated player tag, only after Sporting KC acquired the necessary funds in the Dwyer deal. It will also receive more TAM from the league, which infuses every team’s account each season.
The Sporting Club ownership has expressed a willingness, even an eagerness, to provide the other required piece to make the offseason plans come together — investments for the transfer fees and salary compensation.
“We’re going to be extremely prudent with whatever resources we have to get players,” Vermes said. “That’s always been our bread and butter. We’re not going to go away from our foundation.”
Vermes has tasked Bliss with locating as many as 100 players for each desired position, with those efforts centralized on European and South American prospects. From there, the list is narrowed based on the player’s desire to come to both MLS and Kansas City, his contract status, his club’s desire to sell, among other factors. After whittling the number down to five or so players —and he’s close to completing this part of the process —Bliss will present his list to Vermes.
“One of the biggest reasons why we brought Brian on board (in January 2016) is because we wanted to have someone who was dedicated to overseeing the process of identifying players for this club in the present and future,” Vermes said.
It’s the formula that spurred seven straight playoff appearances and four major trophies, most recently the 2017 U.S. Open Cup title. But over that time, the team recharged its roster using the sales of past players to stay under the cap, transferring Uri Rosell, Kei Kamara and Krisztian Nemeth. Here, that’s simply a piece of a larger equation.
To stay competitive, MLS teams are spending more as the league grows. Sporting KC will be one of them.
But the strategy of the past — a hunt for the best bargains on the global market — remains in place.
“The timing has put us in a good position,” Vermes said. “But we have a lot of work to do. We can’t minimize that.”