Sam Mellinger

The precarious state of Sporting Kansas City: ‘I’m not going to panic now,’ coach says

The season straight from their nightmares continues, relentlessly, on-field failures stacked on top of poor decisions and soft effort ... and those aren’t even the worst days because we haven’t mentioned the injuries yet.

Oh, the injuries. Sporting Kansas City has eight players out now, which is down from a season high of 16. A thin line separates excuses from explanations, and the worst season since Kansas City’s soccer team moved out of a minor-league baseball stadium and into local relevance is the devious work of a wicked combination of rotten injuries and worse play.

This is Peter Vermes’ 10th season in charge of all soccer operations, and this is the worst he’s had it since the very beginning. Sporting marked the halfway point of 2019 with a 5-1 home loss against LAFC this week, one more sad data point for an already high pile — 4-7-7, tied for last place in the Western Conference.

Sixteen games left, and if you’re a dreamer this will be about a proud team welcoming established players back from injury to make a playoff push. But if you’re a realist, this could be about something else entirely — the crash landing of a proud run of success that transformed a franchise and the way a city viewed soccer.

“One of the reasons we have been pretty good over the years is we haven’t made rash decisions,” Vermes said. “We haven’t panicked, and I’m not going to panic now. I’m just not going to do that.”

Sporting has made eight consecutive postseasons, a run of success that includes the 2013 MLS Cup and three U.S. Open Cup trophies. The club has become a consistent winner in a league made for disruption, the whole thing built largely on the belief of team over individual and long-term over short.

Those philosophies are being tested now. Vermes subbed off Krisztian Nemeth at halftime of a noncompetitive loss at Real Salt Lake last week, explaining that “there was no work being done there.”

Even without a goal surrendered on a 4-on-1 break — Sporting was so overwhelmed that a bad touch by RSL turned into an assist — the match offered a low point to an already rotten season.

The challenge for the players: use these last 16 games to save a season and make a case to be part of the future.

The challenge for Vermes: determine how much of these problems are injuries and how much is an aging core and talents that no longer fit.

“I believe in the team,” Vermes said. “I believe in the roster. I need to get these guys back heathy and fit. Then I need to be honest in where they’re at and where the team is at in that moment.”

The injuries are the easy to diagnose and the most obvious cause of struggles, but it’s more than that. Sporting traded away Diego Rubio and Ike Opara and, regardless of the reasons, would almost certainly be stronger with them still on the team.

The decisions going forward could be just as difficult. Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Seth Sinovic are each 32 years old. Tim Melia is 33, and Benny Feilhaber 34. Nemeth is 30.

Vermes generally believes in the philosophy made famous by cold-hearted NFL teams like the New England Patriots: better to get rid of a guy a year early than a year too late.

But he also signed Besler, Zusi and Espinoza to long-term contracts last summer. He believes that players last longer now than a decade or two ago because they take better care of their bodies, but how do you evaluate confidently when you can’t see the team together?

Vermes has always looked at his roster as a collective, rather than individuals, which means proper evaluation of one player often depends on others being healthy and fit.

Then again, the decline of older players isn’t just about pace or fitness. Older players tend to be injured more often. It is, in Vermes’ description, “for sure a conundrum.”

“What I can say is that prior to all these guys going out, we were actually playing some of the best soccer ever in my time here,” he said. “So what I say to you in this moment, the feeling I have inside of me is the team, the roster, is a very good one. And there’s no reason I should think differently other than the fact that we have a lot of guys out and they’re not available.

“I don’t have a bunch of guys to evaluate and say, ‘This guy lost a step, or this guy doesn’t fit anymore, so I have to find somebody better in this position.’ I just don’t have those guys everyday to make that evaluation.”

Vermes is not the type to make decisions based on sentiment, or overlook the potential of injuries as players age. But, like he says, the success here is built in large part on avoiding radical change.

That’s why the rest of this season is a potential on-ramp to the most significant turnover in recent franchise history. Sporting has a lot of players on bad contracts, and others that they might prefer to move on from are not free agents.

Feilhaber, Kelyn Rowe, Rodney Wallace and others will likely be gone. Seth Sinovic could return as a backup, but the club will look to improve his spot. Gedion Zelalem is young but has a contract that could be difficult to keep.

Yohan Croziet, Andreu Fontas and Zusi are among those who’ve underperformed their role and salary but remain under contract next year. Changing those spots would require trades, and Sporting would be selling low.

Moving parts abound. Not just with Vermes putting a pseudo-pause on some evaluations while he waits for injuries to clear, but with an expiring CBA. The replacement will change how business is done, in some ways, which will impact how Sporting proceeds.

Vermes is smart to express this in terms of panic. He’s never made desperate decisions, and he won’t start now.

But the rest of this season will be about determining one simple question: Would significant changes represent desperation, or the smart way to build a better future?

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.