There was a sense of relief in the voice of Justin Mapp over the phone, and it’s easy to pinpoint why.
On Monday, Mapp became the first free-agent signing in Major League Soccer’s 20-year history, completing a move to Sporting Kansas City after a successful four-year stint with the Montreal Impact.
On this day, it is understandable that the majority of the questions directed at Mapp would be about the process of free agency. Ratified under the league’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, players 28 years or older with at least eight years of MLS experience are eligible for free agency. Mapp was arguably the most sought-after commodity under this new system, and many wanted insight to how it all unfolded.
If you expected charter planes flying in for lavish dinners to talk potential moves, a la San Antonio Spurs’ Lamarcus Aldridge, you’re horribly mistaken. Mapp and his agent received calls from various coaches and technical directors from around the league, including Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes. Mapp then weighed those options, and within a week settled on Kansas City as his new home.
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Not particularly exhilarating, sure, but a whirlwind of a ride in uncharted territory nonetheless.
“Once the free-agent window opened up, I had interest from several teams,” Mapp said. “Peter reached out to my agent and expressed interest. It was something I wanted to explore right away. That’s something I did in the middle of last week, and here I am today. It all happened pretty quickly. I feel like the process is new for all of us, so we weren’t exactly sure how it would all work, but we made it happen.”
For now, Mapp’s acquisition is about MLS free agency. That’s to be expected in an age of significant growth for the league. But come next season, this move will likely be about Sporting KC picking up an important piece — perhaps the missing piece — in another potential MLS Cup run.
Let’s first look back at the past season for a moment. Sporting KC’s regular wingers not named Krisztian Nemeth accounted for three goals and eight assists in 34 regular-season games. Converted wide player Graham Zusi accounted for 64 percent of that production in what was a significant down year for one of the team’s core veterans, and Jacob Peterson had the other 36 percent as the first-choice option off the bench. In Nemeth, Sporting KC had a legitimate scoring threat but not a traditional winger in the sense of stretching the field both horizontally and vertically.
That all changes with the addition of Mapp. The ex-Impact midfielder is a winger in every sense of the word. He will work up and down the sideline next to the chalk. He will challenge fullbacks in 1-v-1 situations. He has the ability cut inside with pace with or without the ball. He can keep defenders honest by pushing them out toward the edge of the box before whipping in a cross. And what especially lacked from Sporting KC wingers last season: Mapp has the ability to connect the final pass.
He is also surprisingly durable. Before elbow and foot injuries that slowed him significantly this year, Mapp had played in 23 or more games every season from 2011-14 for the Philadelphia Union and Impact. He played in 20 or more games in six of his eight years with Chicago as well.
The upcoming MLS season will be Mapp’s 16th go-around. He knows the league inside and out by now, including how Sporting KC plays with its established 4-3-3 formation under Vermes. He will not need much grooming. In Mapp, Vermes has a true winger who can push the tempo and stretch the field to open up space for guys like Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer. That could mean the return of the infamous Sporting KC high line that went missing in 2015 because of the lack of a guy like Mapp.
“The thing about Justin is he can play on the left or right,” Vermes said. “He’s left-footed, but he can come inside on the right and be more in combination play as a playmaker through the central channel. When he’s playing more on the left, he has the ability to serve a ball unlike many guys in this league. I think he has one of the best services and touches in the league. He also has the ability to take on people 1-v-1 and eliminate them through the dribble. The final piece is that he can play behind the forward as a true playmaker. As you guys have seen, teams have packed it in against us, so you need players like Justin who have the quality to open up defenses.”
Here is what Mapp can bring to the table in motion: this first video shows off his ability to cut inside and funnel the attack down the middle. Notice how he keeps his eyes downfield to spot an excellent, diagonal run from his former striker, Marco Di Vaio.
Even at 31, Mapp still has the kind of pace shown in this video from 2013, and he certainly still has the skill to deliver a beautiful, overhead ball.
He also does what he does superbly without the ball. In this second video, Mapp exploits the stranded left back, finds space and then sends in a low-lying cross for the score. This type of wing play leading up to the pass was rare, if not non-existent altogether, last season. The cross itself would have been mishit eight out of 10 times. Not with Mapp.
Mapp isn’t the end all be all for Sporting KC this offseason, but it is a fine start. Next on the docket according to Vermes is another midfielder (possibly a back-up central defender) and a true defender (likely depth at centerback). Another need is someone to back-up Dom Dwyer at striker – someone like former MLS MVP Mike Magee (Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman teased Magee alongside Mapp in a recent post on Twitter) or former Los Angeles Galaxy wrecker Alan Gordon.
For now, while MLS celebrates the historic start to free agency, Sporting KC fans should celebrate the quality addition of Justin Mapp.