Recalling preseason projections, 2015 was supposed to be the season Sporting Kansas City dropped off the perch of MLS consistency. Perhaps the charm of a darling stadium and a boisterous fan base would finally wear off, and reality would set in that Sporting KC simply isn’t the big spenders die-hard fans wish they would be in a new age of MLS blockbuster moves.
If you look exclusively at the end result, such disappointment was evident. For the second straight year, Sporting KC struggled toward the end of the regular season before getting bounced from the knockout round, albeit this time the product of one of the most bizarre shootout sequences in quite some time.
The reality, though, is that only one team gets the opportunity to celebrate when all is said and done, so it can be short-sided to label a season a success or failure based on how it ended. Truth be told, 2015 was a year filled with ups and downs for Sporting KC, and stepping back, there was more good than bad during the ride. The club maintained form after Ike Opara went down and looked like a clear MLS Cup candidate during the summer grind. It tiptoed through U.S. Open Cup play and captured a third title in four seasons.
Krisztian Nemeth went from a nice offseason addition — a “Peter Vermes guy” as it’s so often referred to now — to one of the most exciting players in the league alongside Sebastian Giovinco and Kei Kamara. The club drafted three players out of college, and two became integral parts of its playoff push.
The big picture requires patience and so often a reality check, and examining Sporting KC’s 2015 certainly requires both. This is a closer look at the year in review as it relates to player performance:
Saad Abdul-Salaam — The University of Akron product played in 22 league games as a rookie, including 10 starts mostly coming in the second half of the season. He isn’t flashy, and needs to improve with the ball at his feet, but playing it safe defensively was what Sporting KC needed in a year where its fullbacks weren’t as vital in the attack. Abdul-Salaam should benefit from his rookie-year experience and improve to play a big role in 2016.
Jalil Anibaba — The lengthy defender was a nice, temporary fit while Chance Myers worked back from his Achilles’ injury. When Opara went down, many thought his experience at centerback would make him a prime candidate to work alongside Matt Besler. That thought never came to fruition, though, and injuries made it difficult for him to see the field. Sporting KC declined his option on Nov. 25.
Bernardo Añor — Coming off back-to-back solid seasons for Columbus Crew SC, Añor was a steal for Vermes. Unfortunately, injuries plagued the 27-year-old throughout the first half of the season, which made getting back to “Sporting fit” a much more difficult task. At $135,000 against the cap, he’s an interesting piece moving forward. When healthy, he can add width to Sporting KC’s attack, which it looks to do in 2016 with the addition of Justin Mapp.
Matt Besler — 2014 left a sour taste in Besler’s mouth, as he and Graham Zusi struggled to return to league form after the World Cup. This season was an entirely different story. He quietly had one of his best seasons as a professional, starting 32 games while tallying a career-high three assists. He was the consistent piece along the backline that helped Kevin Ellis mature as a centerback. Had it not been for Besler, Sporting KC’s 45 goals allowed would likely be pushing 60.
Amadou Dia — Vermes believed Dia was a steal at No. 20 in the first round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft. He was right. Dia played less like a rookie and more like a player two or three years into his MLS career. He put up similar numbers to Abdul-Salaam, 13 starts in 22 appearances during league play, but was more of an aggressor in the attack. He was willing to challenge opposing players one-on-one and rush back off a turnover. More importantly, he understood his positioning as it relates to the rest of the defense. With Seth Sinovic set to return, it will be interesting to see how Vermes utilizes his left backs in 2016.
Dom Dwyer — One year removed from setting the club’s MLS single-season goal-scoring record (22), Dwyer cooled off to net 12 goals in 30 appearances. The drop-off no doubt was the result of Nemeth and Feilhaber’s offensive output and the lack of service out wide. When he wasn’t scoring, Dwyer put in the same effort seen in 2014, which is valuable for how Sporting KC plays. The only downside for Dwyer continues to be his ability to challenge defenders in the air. He likely will be back in 2016, but the following year should be interesting as Dwyer continues to pick up interest elsewhere and Nemeth desires a return to his most comfortable position at striker.
Kevin Ellis — Perhaps the toughest player to review, Ellis was thrown into a difficult position when Opara went down. He was a forward in Sporting KC’s academy and then a fullback once he signed a homegrown contract. All of a sudden, he was expected to start 26 games as a centerback and be a like-for-like replacement for Opara. Those expectations were unfair. Ellis was up for the task and improved throughout the season. He also showed the type of person he is off the field through the “#GoKitGo” movement. With Opara healthy heading into 2016, Ellis likely will be a spot starter, which he should thrive in.
Roger Espinoza — Espinoza’s numbers (one goal and four assists) weren’t staggering prior to going down with a fractured bone in his left foot, but it was what he was doing behind the scenes that made him a vital cog in the Sporting KC machine. He singlehandedly shutdown a third of the field, which allowed Soni Mustivar to roam freely in a smaller portion of the field and not sideline-to-sideline. When he went down in August, Mustivar had to expend much more energy game in and game out covering more of the field. Espinoza was eyeing a return in the 2015 playoffs, so he should be at 100 percent by the time the 2016 regular season rolls around in March.
Benny Feilhaber — Had it not been for the injuries late in the season that forced Feilhaber to play more defensively, the midfielder likely would have given Giovinco and Kamara more of a run for the league’s MVP award. In league play, he scored 10 goals and then set up 15(!) for others. He’s not Michael Bradley-esque in hitting 40-yard balls with pinpoint accuracy. Instead, he’s superb with the ball at his feat, and arguably the best at finding pockets of space to deliver a quick through ball. He’s due for a nice raise soon, and assuming he wants designated-player money, Sporting KC should be able to utilize the targeted allocation money (TAM) to work out a new contract.
Connor Hallisey — There’s not a lot here. Hallisey is a good player who looked like a decent attacking option off the bench. He wasn’t quite able to take the next step as a rookie, though, which saw his minutes limited. He will benefit from the offseason and likely see the field more in 2016.
Marcel de Jong — A seasoned player overseas, de Jong never quite fit into Vermes’ 4-3-3 system in 2015. As a left back, he naturally drifted into the middle of the field, which left space for him to be exposed by opposing wingers. Conditioning was another concern. With Sinovic and Dia back next season, de Jong could be a key piece if on the trading block. He’s shown well on the international stage, and for a team like Toronto FC, which is looking to bolster its defensive efforts, de Jong would make a ton of sense. If he does return, expect better awareness and knowledge of the Sporting KC system.
Jon Kempin — Luis Marin’s early departure was more problematic than what some initially thought. Suddenly, Sporting KC was left with another international roster spot and without a first-choice goalkeeper. Of course, Tim Melia quickly stepped in and went on to have an incredible season. But that meant Kempin had to be recalled from loan to serve as the backup, meaning he wasn’t getting game experience week in and week out. It’s clear that Kempin is close to being the goalkeeper many thought he would be when he signed a homegrown contract. When Vermes said he and Melia will both challenge for the starting job in 2016, he wasn’t kidding. Expect a contested battle throughout preseason.
Mikey Lopez — Lopez largely flew under the radar this season. His recall from Oklahoma City didn’t generate much buzz, so when he saw the field, few knew what to expect. Lopez’s development has been slow, but this season he showed significant improvement, mostly with the ball at his feet. One major issue, however, is that his salary will count against the cap next season, which wasn’t the case before due to his Generation adidas status.
Jimmy Medranda — Like Lopez, Medranda is an interesting prospect, but it hasn’t quite translated to the field consistently. Vermes did give him extra minutes this year as a result of his form in training, but his role remains to be seen. He isn’t a fullback (though that was fun!). He’s not a defensive midfielder or a No. 10 either. Distinguishing his role will be important moving forward, as he is taking up an international roster spot.
Tim Melia — By now, it’s a tired narrative. Melia was a pool goalkeeper who flew across the country for a game only to hear he wouldn’t be suiting up. He landed with Sporting KC late last season and then signed a contract for under $100,000 during the offseason. No one expected him to start 23 games in 2015, let alone record eight shutouts in league play to go along with 82 saves and 11 wins. Melia is determined to make sure this past season was no fluke, which will be key with Kempin eyeing the starting job.
Soni Mustivar — The ability to shield your defensive backline cannot be overstated in MLS. It simply makes all the difference. Just ask Sporting KC in 2014 after the loss of Oriol Rosell. Mustivar unexpectedly took over the reigns and acted as a workhorse in a critical spot in the midfield. He’s currently out of contract with the club, but Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman has expressed confidence in Mustivar returning for 2016.
Chance Myers — Myers’ return was a slow process, a tough one for the eight-year MLS veteran. Even when he eventually saw the field, it was only the beginning of a return to form as one of the best right backs in the league. Like Sinovic, Myers will have competition next year with Abdul-Salaam vying for time. However, Myers should be much improved, especially with his conditioning, by the time the 2016 regular season rolls around.
Paulo Nagamura — Nagamura is a veteran who was adjusting to life as a backup this past season when Roger Espinoza went down in August, forcing him to take over the starting job. Nagamura was a fine replacement, but at 32 years old with a lot of miles on his legs in Vermes’ attack-minded system, he slowed down at times. He officially was out of contract on Nov. 25 and little to no news has popped up on where he will land. If it ends up being Sporting KC, it will have to be for less than the $230,000 he earned last season.
Krisztian Nemeth — Let’s let the stats do the talking: 10 goals, six assists on 58 shots in 28 league appearances, including the Goal of the Year against Portland late in the season. Tack on what he did in U.S. Open Cup play and Nemeth was among the top performers in MLS. Nemeth isn’t a natural winger, which posed problems for Sporting KC at times. If he desires to return to striker, the club will have much to discuss in the next year or two as it pertains to him and Dwyer.
Amobi Okugo — Okugo’s time in Kansas City got off to a rough start. His first appearance came at home in the team’s worst game of the season (a 5-0 drubbing to San Jose). He is a veteran player who’s able to play several positions. His biggest hang up thus far in Kansas City has been fitness. Expect Okugo to get that situation addressed during the offseason, and for him to provide depth in 2016.
Ike Opara — For the first month of the season, Opara was the best centerback in the league and among the top players in all of MLS. His season-ending injury was extremely unfortunate, but his determination to return to form is inspiring and should be promising for Sporting KC in 2016. He’s the perfect complement to Besler and vice versa, and his height aids the club on set pieces. Opara is a great player and an equally great person; let’s hope he’s able to remain healthy next season.
Erik Palmer-Brown — The calls keep coming and Vermes keeps hanging up. Palmer-Brown is a promising prospect, and teams from around the world are hoping to snag him. Like Kempin, patience is running out in the way of fans hoping to see them playing consistently on the senior squad. Palmer-Brown should get more than seven appearances in 2016, but I think it’ll be at least 2017 before he makes his case as an every-game centerback in MLS.
Jacob Peterson — He’s not a first-choice option off the bench, but Peterson is valuable in Kansas City. He’s a tireless worker who harasses opposing defenses. He doesn’t possess excellent finishing capabilities, but he makes up for it in terms of effort and leadership. At $123,500 against the cap, Peterson has a role on this team. In 2016, it should come in the form of the third option off the bench, and more so in training by helping young players.
Jordi Quintilla — “Jake, I go” will go down in Sporting KC lore. Those words, followed up by a successful penalty attempt, helped the club capture a second U.S. Open Cup title in four years. Quintilla is an entertaining prospect who thrives with the ball at his feet. He’ll serve more of a role next season, as we all see what he can do in MLS.
Seth Sinovic — A lengthy absence from all soccer-related activities following a head injury set Sinovic back this season. He lost fitness and game speed. Couple that with the development of Dia, and some questioned whether he would return next season. Sinovic has since been re-signed and will challenge Dia for time in 2016. Competition at fullback was an issue before 2015, but now it’s a key that should improve the quality there.
Graham Zusi — Injuries certainly marred Zusi’s play in 2015, as the attacking threat posted his lowest goals and assists output in five years. A bigger issue, however, is how Sporting KC is utilizing its designated player. He’s not a natural winger, and there are too many similarities between him and Feilhaber when the two are paired together in the midfield. Perhaps a change of scenery could come in the next few years, but for 2016, Zusi will return and will be better than his recent form. Expect numbers close to 2013, where he scored six goals and tallied eight assists.