The Full 90

With Opara out, who will Sporting KC turn to at CB?

Defender Ike Opara laments a missed opportunity during a match with the Portland Timbers in 2015. Opara injured his Achilles against Real Salt Lake on April 12 and will most most of the season.
Defender Ike Opara laments a missed opportunity during a match with the Portland Timbers in 2015. Opara injured his Achilles against Real Salt Lake on April 12 and will most most of the season. Special to the Star

Sad news from Sporting Kansas City, as the team announced on Monday that Ike Opara will likely miss between four to six months with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

First things first: Get well soon, Ike.

The timing of this injury couldn’t be worse. Opara was having a resurgent start to the season (leading the team in goals and aerial duels) after missing most of last year with a foot injury (suffered on March 29, 2014, against Colorado). He was also key to Sporting KC’s defense this year — which started out rough, but had started to round into fine form.

He joins fellow defender Chance Myers on the long-term injury list. Myers’ return from an Achilles tear in 2014 is still a few weeks (if that) away.

This news of Opara’s injury led to a flood of questions. So, this week, we are breaking our usual mailbag into two pieces. Today, we’ll deal with the loss of Opara and the overall outlook for the defense. Later this week, we’ll deal with the non-Opara/CB emails.

Andy Edwards and I tackled this issue at length on this week’s Sporting KC-centric episode of Talkin’ Touches. So, make sure to give it a listen for a more detailed discussion about the replacements and roster.

It sure seems like neither guy can really catch a break. Holden has just 34 appearances in England since leaving the Houston Dynamo in 2010. He hasn’t played a competitive match since suffering a torn ACL in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2013.

For Opara this looks like it will be the sixth season in which he will not appear in more than 18 matches — his career high back in 2013. (He was excellent that year, by the way.) At 26 years old, he’s got just 62 regular season games under his belt. For comparison’s sake, Jalil Anibaba (his most likely like-for-like replacement on the roster) is also 26, but has made 116 MLS appearances (with one fewer season as a pro).

Peter Vermes will have to turn to his bench to find someone to pair with Matt Besler in the short term. Anibaba, Kevin Ellis and Erik Palmer-Brown are the conventional best bets to fill in — though, Marcel De Jong* played some CB in Germany and Seth Sinovic did some emergency work last year (albeit in a three-man back-line with Myers around Palmer-Brown).

*Since De Jong is left footed like Besler and would play a more distributor role, I can’t imagine both players playing together very much.

I imagine, especially with the physical Los Angeles Galaxy and Alan Gordon looming, that Anibaba will move inside with either Amadou Dia or Jacob Peterson handling the right back spot. Ellis replaced Opara in the last game though and Palmer-Brown replaced Besler earlier this season when the captain drew a red card. (More on the that in a bit.)

That’s the short-term answer. The long-term solution is a little more confusing. Vermes has said the team will look at all options for a replacement and are acting as if Opara will miss the entire year.

That’s because Vermes has to account not only for the upcoming MLS and Open Cup (starts in June) fixtures, but also the Gold Cup (which could see KC lose Besler and De Jong) and the Under-20 World Cup (Palmer-Brown).*

*Luckily, those two competitions don’t overlap, as the U-20 World Cup runs May 30-June 20. The Gold Cup starts on July 7 and runs through July 26.

Vermes just can’t rely on what he’s got on the bench in the long term.

There are three paths KC can follow in this direction. (My colleague Sam McDowell broke some of this down in The Star.)

▪ Seek out a potential trade or loan inside of the league. Just off the top of my head, I can’t think of a situation right now with an available and under-valued starting-quality CB in the league. Though, I imagine if he was still with the Sounders, Anibaba would fit that profile.

I imagine Vermes has made a few phone calls already, we’ll have to see if any pan out. (You also have to wonder what exactly KC would be willing to give up for this player. Allocation money? Draft picks?)

▪ Shop for a player in a lower-division who could be ready to step up. This could be a likely move, especially with a ready-made partnership with Oklahoma City Energy FC in the USL.

I’m just spit-balling here, but KC already sent Jon Kempin and Saad Abdul-Salaam on loan to the San Antonio Scorpions. Maybe San Antonio could loan back one of their experienced (but aging) defenders like Nana Attakora (Toronto, San Jose, D.C. United) or Julius James (D.C. United, Houston, Columbus)? Neither would be an ideal starting CB, but those guys could help. Starting CBs, I hope you’re starting to see, don’t just grow on trees in this country. (This is highly unlikely, the Scorpions don’t have many CBs on the roster.)

Another potential option? Kansas City and Brazilian club Fluminense have a partnership that is supposed to send a player to KC this season. Last year, that player was Igor Juliao. It might be him again (which would allow PV to move Anibaba inside more easily), but perhaps this will lead to a re-think of who might be a better option.

As for the last option...

Well, since the MLS roster rules for 2015 haven’t been released yet (a casualty of the collective bargaining agreement), we (the media) don’t really know for sure when it closes. Last season, the window shut on May 12. If the same holds true this year (and I’ve heard it’s likely May 11), Vermes better start shopping quickly. However, since windows in most international leagues shut already this year, he will be restricted to shopping for out-of-contract players or players who can arrange a mutual termination with a club.

Let’s head back to some questions about the players currently on the roster.

This was an extension of a discussion about Anibaba — the “he” in the opening of the sentence.

Anibaba is a natural center back but he’s been utilized as a make-shift right back the last few matches for KC. He’s been OK on the wing, but he’s not a natural and it shows in his lack of dynamism going forward. He doesn’t bring much to the attacking third from a wide position (he has yet to complete a cross this season), which is usually a requirement for a team that relies on width to create scoring chances.

However, he’s been above-average (and then some) defensively in the open field. That counts for a lot with a defensive-minded coach like Vermes. And that makes it hard to shift him away, especially since Amadou Dia — who Anibaba replaced — struggled to keep his defensive shape at times in the first two games.

Ellis is kind of the exact opposite of Anibaba, as he’s a natural fullback who has converted to center back almost exclusively since the Cruz Azul game last March. His positional sense is the best of the potential replacements and he knows the expectations/system better as well. He started one game at CB this year (replacing Besler against Dallas), and had a solid game in spite of the heavy 3-1 loss — he registered a game-high 9 interceptions and 8 clearances.

His lack of size (listed at 5’9”) can become an issue against bigger CBs, but he’s a steady option if Vermes doesn’t want to mess with the wings at this stage.

Palmer-Brown is only 17 still (he turns 18 in a few weeks) and has made four appearances in three years with KC including a five-minute appearance against New York in the season opener. Last year, Vermes had no choice but to give EPB his first-ever start in a radical three-man back line and picked up a red card. He didn’t play a major role over the rest of the season and spent time injured. He hasn’t been as involved recently this season as he was invited to the U.S. U-20 national team camp in England at the end of March. With the World Cup starting in just over a month, I expect he might not settle into the team regularly until the summer.

He’s still a long-term project (and still has Juventus sniffing around) and needs to continue learning the game, but he has the physical tools to compete. I wouldn’t expect PV to throw him to the wolves (Gordon/Robbie Keane/Gyasi Zardes) this weekend. But he’ll likely see more time this year than last.

If I had to rank them in quality as CB: Anibaba, Ellis, EPB.

If I had to rank them in order of how much I think PV will utilize them at CB this season: Ellis, Anibaba, EPB.

Injuries complicate matters from a team-building perspective when you consider the salary cap and 28-man roster (that’s a new feature of the CBA according to sources) in Major League Soccer. Not many teams in MLS can have the luxury of three starting-caliber CBs, as KC did in 2013 with Besler/Collin/Opara. To keep that trio together, Vermes would’ve had to pay Collin designated-player (or nearly) money. That doesn’t make sense toward the salary cap.

What most teams opt for in team construction: 1-2. Regular, every day starters; 3. A guy who can push for playing time and back up either starter*; 4. An inexpensive and positionally-flexible guy (either a guy on the downside of his career or an up-and-comer); 5. A homegrown/draft pick just starting his career if roster space allows.

*With only 34 games — and a handful of Open Cup games — there often aren’t enough minutes to satisfy three starters.

This isn’t just how KC is built either.

Here are Dallas’ central defenders: Matt Hedges (starter), Zach Loyd (converted fullback, starter), Walker Zimmerman (21 years old, third CB), Stephen Keel (31-year-old old former starter) and Moises Hernandez (homegrown kid capable of playing a few spots).

And Columbus: Michael Parkhurst (starter), Emanuel Pogatetz (international, starter), Tyson Wahl (aging vet, third CB) and Kalen Ryder/Sergio Campbell (both under 25, neither with an MLS appearance).

After a rocky year in 2014 with a defense decimated at times by injury, Vermes added four new players to the defense this offseason (Anibaba, Salaam-Abdul, Dia and De Jong) and began the campaign with listed defenders (fullbacks and centerbacks) accounting for more than 30% of the roster. That’s a lot.

Anibaba projected as the “third” starter, only he has helped solidify another position right now. He certainly looks like a decent defender in that position right now. Ellis and Palmer-Brown qualify as solid 4th and 5th centerbacks in my opinion. Five CBs is a lot of CBs on a 30-man roster — it’s about 16 percent just for that one position. (Except for Sporting KC’s anomaly in 2014, teams don’t often have much need for a fifth centerback.)

If that wasn’t enough Opara-defense talk for you, Sam McDowell and I sat down at our small table in the KC Star soccer bunker to discuss the situation a little further.

Back on Friday with part two of the mailbag.

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