The streak is over. It’s over in resounding fashion, a yearlong nosedive complete with a shellacking on the season’s final afternoon. For the first time since a franchise-saving rebrand in 2011, Sporting Kansas City will watch the MLS playoffs from home, those involved left to ponder how an eight-year run ended.
A 2019 season that started with such promise — headlined by the club’s first trip to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals — concluded with a journey from first to nearly worst in the Western Conference. The team never rebounded from the landslide of an exit in that tournament.
There were injuries. Plenty of them. Players aged. Others underperformed. A two-year search for a striker is glaringly ongoing.
But this isn’t about the intricacies of Sporting Kansas City’s failure to reach the postseason. This is about what comes next. This is how a small-market but proud franchise plans to respond to a free fall and return to a championship contender, all the while navigating alongside the deepening pockets of Atlanta, Los Angeles FC and a collection of MLS owners willing to spend like never before.
“It’s eye-opening to be in the situation we’re in,” said Mike Illig, a Sporting KC principal owner, in an hour-long interview with The Star. “We feel accountable to the fans for this, just based on what we say publicly. Our goal is to win championships and be perennial contenders. When we fail at that, I hold all of us accountable, including myself. I have thick skin. I expect the players and coaches and everyone else in our organization to have thick skin when it comes to the criticisms.
“It’s time to go to work and go fix it.”
One thing won’t change
There will be changes. Possibly a lot of them.
But they won’t come on the technical staff. Peter Vermes will return in 2020 as head coach and sporting director, Illig told The Star. Vermes has earned the chance to pull the club out of this malaise, and ownership remains confident he will, four trophies and the eight-year playoff streak highlighting his tenure.
The changes will instead come on the roster and the finances reserved to improving it, with Vermes holding “complete and total discretion” of personnel decisions, said Illig. That could mean a serious shakeup to the core that has provided those four championships, one an MLS title and three of them U.S. Open Cup crowns.
“No one is bulletproof, in our minds,” Illig said. “The players would be naive to think that there won’t be changes coming. It’s the nature of sports. If you’re measuring performance, and you didn’t perform, it’s logical we’d look at that spot and say, ‘We have to do better there.’”
Upgrading at center forward will demand the most attention. It’s a position in which Sporting KC has tried to go the economical route since shipping Dom Dwyer to Orlando City in 2017.
But doing so will be costly.
Players at the No. 9, as it’s billed, are the most sought-after talent in the global sport and therefore its most expensive. Domestically, MLS owners have become more comfortable opening their checkbooks in recent seasons. Atlanta and LAFC spent upwards of $30 million on transfer fees alone to build their rosters, according to figures from Transfermarkt.
Sporting KC has spent $4 million. Lifetime.
The league has grown to a new neighborhood of finances, and Sporting KC is yet to take the tour. The ownership group recognizes this new reality. Illig separates the caliber of players into five global tiers, acknowledging other teams have tapped into a tier in which Sporting has not yet climbed.
But must now.
“It’s a level we have not played in — but it doesn’t scare us,” Illig said. “We’re not going to go make stupid decisions and pay our way out of it. We’re going to be smart about it. But I don’t think it’s a question of whether we’re willing (to spend). I’m telling you: Yes, we’re willing.”
‘We need a No. 9’
In the summer of 2018, Vermes identified a striker who would have commanded a transfer fee surpassing any previously paid by Sporting KC. Illig admits he nixed the deal, pointing to the club’s pace at the time toward a franchise goal-scoring record. “This seems to be working,” he said then, when Sporting occupied first place in the West.
A year later, there’s urgency. Sporting KC’s goal differential dipped from plus-25 to minus-18 this season, a difference of 43 goals equating to 10 spots in the standings.
In fact, Illig says the team is prepared to pay for three designated players. In the past, ownership thought lower-priced designated players provided the most cohesive sense in a salary cap league. But with the infusion of allocation money, “now it makes sense to go invest in higher-level designated players.” Illig knows you’ve heard this song before, if not from him directly.
What’s new this time? The results. On far too many occasions, Illig returned home from the stadium believing Sporting KC had outplayed its opponent but lost. If only we could’ve finished that one chance. If only that shot finds the net.
Several “expected goals” analytical statistics backed that up. Sporting KC continued to create chances in 2019. It did not finish them.
“We need a No. 9. We need a clinical finisher that we didn’t have this year,” Illig said. “It’s not easy (to get those deals done). But we are putting all of our efforts into going to try to do it.”
Three months ago, Sporting KC believed it had finalized a transfer for a Premier League forward — agreed to a contract with with the player. Closed on terms for a transfer fee with the selling club. At the eleventh hour, a team in another league swooped in. “Going to bed that night, I thought it was a done deal,” Illig said.
Sporting KC has hired talent identification directors across the world to scout potential available players. The front office is willing to acquire a player interested in becoming an MLS lifer. But it would also welcome younger talent, in a buy-and-sell mode.
The increased cash flow in MLS is changing the price tag on all incoming players, particularly for a Kansas City market absent a large downtown and a spot on the coast.
But pressed on the club’s preparedness to surpass those challenges with dollars, Illig insisted that he and his fellow owners are ready. Eleven times during his interview with The Star, he called the 2019 season some form of disappointing. Sporting KC has an aging, slow roster in a league that’s getting younger and faster.
The silver lining of missing the postseason is the extra time it now has to add players. Illig wants a striker, an attacking midfielder, a center back. The former will come with the highest price tag. The method of acquisition will be left to Vermes.
“We know how much it’s going to cost to get those impact players in here,” Illig said. “But it’s still a priority for us. The bottom line is it wasn’t good enough this year, and everyone knows it wasn’t good enough. Everyone has to do a better job. This is an opportunity for us to take a step back and figure out what it’s going to take to fix it.”