Sporting KC’s Ilie, Besler, Espinoza, Zusi on why they’re coming back
The core is coming back to Kansas City.
Matt Besler. Graham Zusi. Roger Espinoza. Ilie Sanchez.
Sporting KC locked up the most consistent names in its lineup with a wave of announcements Tuesday, signing all four players to multi-year contract extensions. It precludes Besler, Zusi and Espinoza from testing a limited version of MLS free agency this winter. Sanchez was under contract for another year.
That’s six starters who have received multi-year contracts in the past nine months. Goalkeeper Tim Melia and defender Ike Opara were signed last offseason.
“We think all of them are in their prime,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We just feel they have a lot of years left to give.”
During the initial month of the season, Vermes pulled his three impending free agents — Besler, Zusi and Espinoza — into a classroom at Pinnacle and informed him of the club’s plans. He was prepared to offer all three extensions, but he first needed to do some legwork with the league to gauge the upcoming roster rules. “Be patient,” he told them. All three expressed a mutual interest in prolonging their stays in Kansas City. Zusi said he never considered playing elsewhere, a comment that Besler and Espinoza nodded as he was stating.
Those three players are in their early 30s — Zusi recently turned 32 and Besler and Espinoza are 31 — but a news conference Tuesday provided the feel of something left to prove. Vermes insisted the contracts with all four players were not rewards but rather business with an eye on the future.
“This is something that we’re not looking back on what we’ve done so far,” Zusi said. “We’re looking forward. We have a lot left to do.”
The trophies will be part of the group’s legacy. Besler and Zusi have won four of them, including three U.S. Open championships and the 2013 MLS Cup. Espinoza has won three. Sanchez lifted the Open Cup trophy last summer, his first season with the team.
The group has provided seven straight trips to the playoffs and are in position to make it an eighth straight next month.
“I feel challenged every single day,” Besler said. “We have a chance to win every single year. So I want to continue to be a part of it.”
On a June trip to the West Coast, Besler led his hometown team onto a soccer field for the 241st time. As of that day, no one has worn the Sporting blue more than Besler, an Overland Park native and graduate of Blue Valley West. Over the next couple of years, he’ll have a chance to pad his franchise records.
Besler and Zusi have spent their entire careers with Sporting KC, but they have a prominent place with another team. Zusi made 55 appearances with the U.S. men’s national team, and Besler made 47.
In 2014, Besler became the first Kansas-born player to appear in a World Cup. His performance on the world stage generated interest from European teams, prompting his previous contract extension after returning from the tournament. That four-year deal was set to expire at the end of the season.
Instead, the tenure with his hometown club marches on. It’s been one filled with accolades. Besler was chosen MLS defender of the year in 2012. He is a five-time all-star.
“When I first started out, I don’t think I could’ve imagined what this has turned into,” Besler said. “You get prideful when you think about what you’re creating, but at the same time, you feel like you’re still creating something.”
After the 2013 MLS Cup, goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen retired, passing along the captain’s armband to Besler. The most recent two U.S. Open Cups have come with Besler serving as the team’s captain.
Zusi and Besler signed very similar contracts after returning from the World Cup in 2014, though their extensions Tuesday are not identical. Sporting KC did not disclose the exact details of each deal, but Vermes said they are of varying lengths.
The start of Zusi’s career was defined by his presence in the attack, but he shifted to the back line in 2017. He ranks second in the league in touches (2,329) this season. He leads all MLS defenders in assists since the transition to right back, a move he said has preserved his body.
“It was a pretty easy decision (to come back), it sounds like for all of us,” Zusi said.
Espinoza, 31, is playing in the final year of a four-year contract he signed upon returning to MLS in January 2015 from Wigan Athletic.
His tenacity is a preferred style of Vermes. Espinoza has an ability to cover multiple positions, and in 2018, he has become a more regular contributor to the offense, recording a career-best nine assists.
“I got to see what’s out there,” Espinoza said of his move to Europe and subsequent return two years later. “Coming back to Sporting, knowing everything and the culture was still there, it’s a no-brainer for me to keep going and work hard for these guys and work hard for the future.”
Sanchez, 27, has been a rock in front of the Sporting KC back line, a Barcelona-born defensive midfielder who links the offense and the defense. His contract was not set to expire until after next year, when the club held a team option.
But his play demanded a revisit in the negotiations. Since joining the club at the start of the 2017 season, Sanchez is second in MLS in successful passes and 10th in interceptions. He has started all but one Sporting KC match over that time frame, and he’s played the full 90 minutes in all of his appearances.
“I think the best years of my career are in front of me,” Sanchez said. “I decided I wanted to give (them) to this club for all they gave to me.”