The conversation inside the Sporting Kansas City bubble must move forward at some point, away from the dissatisfying end of one season and toward the beginning of another. That process has been slow for players, decelerated by the sting of a playoff loss, but it’s there. Between their recaps of the past nine months, they ultimately talk of the future, and there’s a consistency to the message.
Run it back.
“I know there will be different faces; it’s going to be different. That hurts a little bit — seeing your brothers, your teammates who won’t be there anymore,” defender Ike Opara said. “We want to give this a go with this group we have.”
There will be another shot.
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Sporting KC already has 23 players under contract for next season, including all 11 who started the final match of the season, the loss to Portland in the Western Conference Finals. In other words, the 2019 group will look quite similar.
But don’t expect it to look identical.
“In this business, you’re constantly trimming the hedges,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “So there’s always going to be some movement. You never take a blind eye to improving your team. We’re in the world market, so you’re constantly looking at your roster.
“It’s not as if we’re looking at our team and saying that we have all these guys signed to multi-year deals so we’re going to stop scouting and stop going after players. We’re still out there looking for some things.”
After announcing last offseason that he was in the market for a striker, Vermes is keeping the specificity of his targets concealed this time. The quest for a striker has quieted. But he did disclose this: Although it might seem as though Sporting KC is set at certain positions, he won’t hesitate to make a move there.
“If we can find those (starting-caliber) guys in positions we’re looking for, then yes, everything is open,” Vermes said. “I don’t go into this saying, ‘OK, we got our starting lineup back, so we’re all good.’ I’m trying to improve the team. You don’t get everything you want in every position, but we have some very specific areas of focus, and then we have some other areas that, hey, if we can find something better than what we have today, we’re going to seriously consider it.”
As Vermes sat in his office this week, detailing his offseason outlook, he admitted he had not yet scrutinized the details of the playoff loss. A lack of time was the reasoning, he said. It wasn’t outright avoidance.
But there’s perhaps another element at play there. He is careful not to transform a roster based on a single result, instead reflecting on the season as a whole. And in its entirety, the picture is more attractive.
Sporting KC finished first in the Western Conference after a 34-game regular season. It broke the franchise scoring record. It generated more points than all but one team in club history. The batch of newcomers — Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez chief among them — seamlessly transitioned to MLS.
It was a step in the right direction from a club that had not advanced past the knockout round in the previous four seasons. But it was only that.
Before the 2018 training camp, in an off-the-record setting with The Star, Vermes said the grander plan was to build for 2019. In past offseasons, he had replaced starters. At other times, he had improved depth. Last winter, he began a exercise of simultaneity. He signed projected starters, which in turn, transformed former regulars into depth pieces.
It was the beginning of a two-year operation to keep pace with a growing league. And that continues this winter.
“If your question is if we’re making wholesale changes, I would say no,” Vermes said. “But by no means do we consider this process complete. We have to continue to get better because the league is getting better, and we have to still compete.”
As for the methods of getting better?
“A couple of additions. That’s the first thing,” he said. “And the second thing is if we can start preseason at a different plateau than where we started 2017, then I’d like to think that we can grow more over the course of the season. But I do think we need to add some other guys to provide some hunger, some ambition.”
Vermes and Brian Bliss, the club’s director of player personnel, have already started talking with a couple of players. The goal is to construct a roster with “two high-quality players at every single position.”
It’s widely believed that MLS will shorten its season calendar, jamming more midweek games into the schedule. That would require a more extensive rotation. Sporting KC is also playing in the CONCACAF Champions League in late February, a tournament that could run in conjunction with the regular season, depending on the length of the club’s advancement. More bodies will be needed.
There’s also a desire to build on the possession-dominant of play that Sporting KC has enacted over the past two seasons. Nearly a year ago, when Vermes spoke of constructing a plan for 2019, that was atop his list. There were some signs of it one year early.
“I think we’re really close,” Vermes said. “At times, we were right there, for sure. I think other times we dropped off on our confidence, but we always got it back. Very seldom do you see a team just run the table in any sport. The question is when you slip up, how fast do you get back on it? What I would say is that (regarding) the ability to impose your game on other teams, at times we were fantastic. I love that we had a commitment and a consistency with that. But I’d like to see that improve more next year.”