Sporting KC

Decade of dominance: How Sporting KC has remained one of MLS’ most successful teams

Sporting KC midfielder/forward Graham Zusi (8) and defender Matt Besler (5) celebrate with the MLS Cup after defeating Real Salt Lake during Saturday’s MLS Cup Final soccer game December 7, 2013, in Kansas City, Kan.
Sporting KC midfielder/forward Graham Zusi (8) and defender Matt Besler (5) celebrate with the MLS Cup after defeating Real Salt Lake during Saturday’s MLS Cup Final soccer game December 7, 2013, in Kansas City, Kan. File photo

Competing in front of an over-capacity crowd of 19,925 on June 9, 2011, Sporting Kansas City battled out a fierce 0-0 tie with the Chicago Fire in the first game in the newly built Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.

A young Chance Myers said he got goosebumps walking out onto the field for the first time. Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara described the atmosphere as electric. Head coach Peter Vermes saw the game as a moment to make a good impression and propel the team on for the upcoming season.

Vermes labels the moment as one of the most important and a pivotal point for Sporting Kansas City not only this past decade but in his time at the club, only behind the change of ownership in 2006.

But even Vermes couldn’t have expected the decade of dominance Sporting Kansas City would embark on in one of the most turbulent periods in MLS history.

Kansas City is ending the decade just like it started — by missing the playoffs. But just like a Z-Man sandwich from Joe’s Kansas City Barbque, which is stacked to the brim with smoked brisket, onion rings and sauce that’s almost too good to be true, it also has to be surrounded by less exciting bread.

Sporting Kansas City is the Z-Man sandwich. The team’s run — with eight years of playoff success , three U.S. Open Cups and an MLS Cup won in Kansas City that’s almost too good to be true — is surrounded on either side by the not-so-exciting failure to make the playoffs.

But that doesn’t mean the experience as a whole is disappointing. In fact, it’s still one of the most exciting and delightful things about Kansas City. And yes, this statement applies to both the Z-Man sandwich and Sporting KC’s past decade.

With three U.S. Open Cup victories and an MLS Cup to Kansas City’s name, KC will cement itself tied as the most successful team of the 2010s alongside the Seattle Sounders, barring a surprise MLS Cup victory for the LA Galaxy or Seattle this coming postseason.

The achievement is a testament to a decade of dominance for Kansas City that has seen eight straight postseason appearances, ended this season, and three regular-season conference championships.

“For us to also be as competitive as we have been for as many years consistently says a lot about a couple of things,” said Vermes ahead of Kansas City’s last game of the decade, on Sunday against FC Dallas.

“It says a lot about the culture of this club, it says a lot about our ownership group,” he continued. “It says a lot about the players that have played in this club over all those years and the consistent success and competitiveness that they were able to bring on a regular basis.”

But it hasn’t been a walk in the park for Kansas City — and I don’t mean just on the field.

The introduction of designated players before the turn of the decade finally allowed clubs to pay the money needed to bring some of the top players in the world to MLS. This allowed some of the bigger-market teams to spend considerably more money than their smaller-market counterparts right off the bat.

At the turn of the decade, the New York Red Bulls’ and Galaxy’s wage bills combined ($25,816,766) totaled nearly as much as the bottom eight teams in the league combined ($28,177,814), including Kansas City.

Kansas City didn’t even have a true designated player on its books until 2011 when Jéferson Rodrigues Gonçalves and an aging Omar Bravo were signed. Both were gone by the end of the season.

“When the DP’s came into place, we weren’t in that market at all,” Vermes said. “Our DP’s were above the line if you will. Back then it was if you’re above the maximum salary you then would be considered a DP because it wasn’t even TAM money and there were guys in the league that were making $6 million a year.”

Oh yeah, TAM (targeted allocation money) — another messy spanner in the works that threw MLS into disarray in 2015. TAM is a set amount given to teams each year — starting with $1.2 million in 2012 and rising to $4 million in 2019 — which is used to “buy down” players’ contracts below the designated player line.

It’s essentially a way for MLS teams to pay players more money while staying below the salary cap. It was also a way Kansas City managed to maintain such a long period of success in a league where success typically isn’t rewarded.

“I think we were ahead of the game because we had a lot of guys that were already kind of in the TAM area when TAM didn’t exist,” Vermes said. “And so we did that through a lot of trades that we did in the league and also sales of players that afforded us with allocation money that we were able to use against our cap.”

And yet to make things all the more difficult for Kansas City, the addition of nine expansion teams (and the loss of Chivas USA) has provided fresh starts to a plethora of clubs with a fresh batch of designated player and TAM money.

While existing clubs like Kansas City have been balancing the books for years, new clubs such as Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC have stormed onto the scene. The world is their oyster when it comes to the player pool and the pair of teams have used that advantage to full effect.

Atlanta has already claimed an MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup, since arriving in 2017, with the help of the explosive Josef Martinez, while LAFC is setting league records left, right and center behind superstar Carlos Vela.

“That’s where things have really changed immensely because if you look at clubs that have been around since the beginning, they’ve had to go through all this and constantly trying to change,” Vermes said.

“While a new expansion team comes in and they don’t have to change anything,” he continued. “They just go right from the get-go and they have the money and they can go get the players and they can do brand new contracts, a lot of that helps.”

And with a new collective bargaining agreement between the MLS and the MLS Players Association coming up in 2020, expect even more changes to how TAM works.

With the final blow of the whistle on Sunday in Dallas, Vermes and Sporting Kansas City will begin preparations for what they hope will be another decade to remember.

“We have some work to do in that area (building a roster under TAM) moving forward,” Vermes said. “I think we have a tremendous foundation, but the dynamics financially have changed in this league.”

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