The Full 90

Full 90 Mailbag: What’s the next step for Sporting KC’s talent development?

Sporting KC’s Kevin Ellis tries to block a shot against New York earlier this year. Ellis, a graduate of Sporting’s academy, is the first player to make a mark with the first team after a signing a homegrown contract.
Sporting KC’s Kevin Ellis tries to block a shot against New York earlier this year. Ellis, a graduate of Sporting’s academy, is the first player to make a mark with the first team after a signing a homegrown contract. The Kansas City Star

After a brief hiatus, The Full 90 mailbag returns with a quick discussion about player development, the expansion draft, Claudio Bieler and mascots. It’s definitely and officially Sporting Kansas City offseason.

Let’s just jump right in with the questions.

This is a really good theoretical question, one that the esteemed Mike (of Down The Byline) and I were dancing around on Twitter. (His leaning is toward a PDL team.)

It’s not really a debate as Kansas City hasn’t shown any signs of following the path laid down by Los Angeles, Seattle and Real Salt Lake in establishing their own franchise in the USL Pro — KC will retain its partnership with Oklahoma City Energy FC this coming season. Nor has KC shown outward interest in fielding a PDL team like the Chicago Fire, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes or Vancouver Whitecaps.

So, until this becomes a bigger topic of discussion, it’s a fun thing for obsessive followers to think about. (Just on Thursday, Toronto FC became the latest team to wade into the USL Pro waters.)

I think either path would provide a crucial middle step between youth prospect and first-team regular, adding a regular competitive league for academy graduates to continue developing. The difference between the two, on the surface, would likely be monetary investment (USL Pro would be more expensive) and quality of play/profile (USL Pro is higher).

The PDL might offer more choices to the player, as it’s common for a prospect to regularly play for a college team and a PDL side. A professional contract with USL Pro might likely run afoul of NCAA-eligibility rules. The PDL has also been a very productive feeder system for MLS — DeAndre Yedlin, C.J. Sapong (Reading United) and Andrew Wenger (Carolina Dynamo) all played in the league.

Personally, I think the USL Pro option has the potential to be the most beneficial to long-term development — as long as MLS and the league (the third tier of American soccer) retain a professional alliance. Especially if 2014 was the last year for the reserve league.

A USL Pro team would put all of the players under the Sporting KC umbrella, with the team sharing philosophies and tactics at each step of the ladder from the academy on up.

A second team in Kansas City would allow Peter Vermes and his staff to give younger players and academy graduates the chance to play professional soccer under the same facilities. It would allow players who have graduated from the academy system a next step professionally and give those still in the academy another competition level. Recently, the LA Galaxy signed a 15-year-old Academy goalkeeper to Los Dos — to allow him to pay professionally of course, but it also has the added benefit of blocking a foreign team from Mexico from poaching him without a fee.

This step has its drawbacks — mainly, it requires a lot of infrastructure.* With the Swope Park soccer village, Kansas City certainly has most of that covered. It would also require a fairly decent monetary investment to go with a solid pipeline of talent coming out of the academy. KC certainly could have those too.

*Los Angeles is really paving the way in this area. Part of a $15 million investment at StubHub Center will add facilities for the second team and the academy to allow young players to train and develop alongside the senior team.

Backing a team in the PDL would have similar advantages developmentally and would be a little cheaper I imagine. But I think the more professional and higher the level of competition available, the better it will be for development.

The PDL route could have another thing working for it: It would likely be an easier path for players to sign a homegrown contract — and the roster benefits those deals bring. A PDL option would keep a player close to home without a professional contract and abide by MLS rule that homegrown players must train for at least one year in the club’s developmental program and have trained 80 days with the academy during the year they sign the contract.*

*This last caveat is why Christian Duke didn’t qualify for an HG contract.

But, if we’re talking pipe-dream developmental questions, as more teams explore the USL Pro option, the league could always re-write the rules to entice teams to invest in signing academy kids to the second team. After all, MLS wrote the homegrown rule to entice teams to sign academy players in the first place.*

*With a new collective bargaining agreement coming, it’s possible the league’s roster and homegrown rules get rewritten altogether.

My other developmental dreams: For Sporting KC to sign a attack-minded player from the academy and for a homegrown player (Kevin Ellis, Jon Kempin, Erik Palmer-Brown) to break into the first team regularly (and become a starter). Both would be huge steps forward using the infrastructure in place.

I’d also like to see more studies of residency programs like the one Philadelphia started last year to create an environment for learning and developing.

You want to know why I’d make a terrible coach? Besides the fact that I’ve “crashed” more than a dozen times when losing 2-0 in Football Manager? I’d be terrible at these personnel/ego land mines.

But, here goes.

Eric Kronberg got the raise to start the season and the first-choice minutes when fully fit. Andy Gruenebaum is paid like a back-up, but played like a starter when KC needed it most. You can probably keep both, but you definitely can’t protect both in the expansion draft. (Those 11 protected spots are too valuable.)

Financially, I’d want to take my chances with Gruenebaum’s lower contract and bet that his form will continue. Personally, I’d want to stick by Kronberg for a year and see if he improves in his second year as the starter after a bright start. See, I’m terrible at this. I want it both ways.

As for the expansion draft, if it were up to me, I would leave both off the protected list and let New York City (who missed out on Dan Kennedy in the Chivas dispersal draft) decide for me. And, maybe, I’d end up with both again next year. (Which might not excite some fans who would call me names on the Internet.)

He’s not a regular contributor to this team and is definitely using up valuable cap space and a potentially very valuable designated player spot. I think the team should move him either by finding a new spot for him in the league (and getting some allocation money or draft pick in return) or letting him head back to South America (and recoup whatever transfer fee he can command).

As crazy as it is, I still believe in Claudio Bieler though and wouldn’t mind seeing him have another go in MLS. In a two-striker system — with a bigger, athletic hold up player next to him — he could thrive in MLS. He just wasn’t a great fit in Vermes’ one-striker hustle-and-press system as long as Dom Dwyer was around. Maybe a team like the Columbus Crew, who just added Kei Kamara, could use a more reliable focal point next to him and in front of Federico Higuain.

I don’t think so, for two reasons.

1) I don’t really think Kansas City can employ both Kamara and Dom Dwyer at the same time. Both are ball dominant forwards (I mean that in the best way possible) who need to be the focal point of attacking movements. If you have both of them on the field together, I think you’ll find space in the box suddenly extremely clogged. (The two played 114 minutes together and produced one goal — Dwyer scoring via a Kamara assist against New York.)

2) Kamara would’ve been a tad expensive. When he left MLS in 2013, his base salary was $300,000. After making Besler and Zusi designated players, paying Chance Myers, putting aside money for the inevitable Dwyer/Feilhaber contract extensions that are coming, carving out space to potentially bring in a more-needed player like Roger Espinoza, and making a bona fide offer to Collin that would’ve been an extensive lay out for Kamara too.

Even if KC use the money/cap space from the potential departure of Bieler (and even if the cap goes up next year), see reason #1.

From my read of the situation, Collin probably wants to get paid like Besler/Zusi got paid. He’s not exactly wrong if he wants that either. You can make an argument that the 2013 MLS Cup belongs to KC because of Collin — he was the MVP of that game and the playoffs. He’s also an extremely popular player — he’s the last guy in the pre-game hype video for a reason.

But he’s also erratic and lacks the same narrative backdrop as Besler/Zusi staying home and signing DP deals this summer. The two sides are still negotiating, so we’ll see. We’ll also know more when KC’s protected list for the expansion draft comes out — if Collin isn’t on it, there’s very little chance he signs with KC as a designated player.

The other option might be Feilhaber. Another year like 2014, he’d be making a strong case for that kind of coin.

However, I’m not sure there will be just “3” DP slots next year. I could see that number go up to 4 or 5 when the CBA is settled. The uncertainty of it might see KC wait until the summer to try to snare an extra player (or two) of that distinction.

When it comes to MLS mascot knowledge, I have my opinions for sure, but I defer to the expert on the topic, Maxi Rodriguez (aka @FutbolIntellect on Twitter).

In case you’re wondering, you can see Cozmo (LA Galaxy), Tex Hooper (Dallas) and Slyde (New England) for yourself. Those are three solid choices.

I might re-order that list slightly to with Tex Hooper in front, Slyde in second and Cozmo in third. But those are the top three. The rest of the MLS mascots are a bit underwhelming.

It’s definitely not San Jose’s Grover knock off “Q.” Nor Colorado, who bizarrely has four different mascots. And it’s not Blue — sorry Blue you know you’re my boy still.

Let’s make sure to pour one out for Crew Cat — the best mascot in the league who might be donzo with the club’s more mature re-brand.

While we’re pouring one out, save a few drops in remembrance of Dynamo — the Wizard’s dragon/dinosaur friend.