The summer transfer market is open for business officially for Major League Soccer.
While the next month shouldn’t be a time for panic buying from Sporting Kansas City, it’s definitely the time to add some reinforcements.
With the roster currently in a state of flux thanks in large part to an injury crisis bordering on a pandemic, a string of inconsistent results, the loss of Oriol Rosell, the enigma wrapped inside a mystery that is Claudio Bieler’s status, and the chance that Matt Besler (and possibly Graham Zusi too) rides World Cup success to Europe, Kansas City needs (or soon will need) a few more bodies in several key positions.
Sporting KC’s CEO Robb Heineman and coach Peter Vermes have publicly said as much.
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Even with the team’s inconsistent run during May and continuing into the summer, Kansas City is still currently second place in the Eastern Conference and nine points behind Seattle in the Supporters’ Shield race. At the exact halfway point of the season, KC is on the exact same pace as last year: 7-5-5 with 26 points.
During the Peter Vermes era, Sporting KC has developed a habit for stringing together solid second-half runs. Last year, KC was 10-5-2 in the second half of the season. In 2012, KC went 8-2-5 over the last 17 games. Thanks to the home-field advantage of a newly-opened Sporting Park, Kansas City had a 14-game unbeaten streak (and only lost twice in 20 games) during the summer of 2011.
To match those runs again this year, Kansas City needs a few more capable bodies.
The question, though, isn’t whether KC will add players to the roster. It’s whether those players can arrive and acclimate into the team quickly enough to help KC make a second-half run.
Historically, the summer window hasn’t been a very fruitful market for Kansas City to find players ready to contribute immediately. Thanks to Vermes’ fitness and defensive requirements, breaking into his first team is often a difficult feat. (For example, it took Benny Feilhaber a full year to become “Sporting fit.”)
Since 2009, the most successful summer buys have been with an eye on the future, such as Oriol Rosell, Lawrence Olum, Peterson Joseph and Jimmy Medranda. Soony Saad (weighted lottery) and Erik Palmer-Brown (homegrown signing) were both summer acquisitions too.
This has generally worked out pretty well. Saad, Rosell and Olum have developed under Vermes into regular contributors — Rosell, in fact, developed right out of MLS and into a big transfer to Sporting Lisbon in Portugal earlier this year. Joseph would likely be a regular this year too if he had been healthy. Palmer-Brown has impressed as a teenager. The jury is still out on Medranda.
The team’s most recent signing, 22-year-old Ghanian midfielder Michael Kafari, figures to fall into this category as well. Opening the window with a guy like Kafari is probably a good sign that KC isn’t going to start a crazy spending spree.
There have been some swings and misses over the last few seasons too. Defenders Nick Kounenakis, Neven Markovic, Brendan Ruiz and Federico Bessone had a combined two appearances in a KC jersey — both by Markovic.
Three players did manage to break into the first team almost immediately after joining during the summer, but with varying levels of success: Zoltan Hercegfalvi in 2009 (injuries ultimately derailed his career), Shavar Thomas in ’10 (he helped shore up the defense before lack of fitness caught up with him) and Jéferson in ’11 (started strong as a designated player but faded fast and was waived by the end of the year).
A big reason KC hasn’t traditionally made a big splash in the market — aside from Jéferson — is that they really haven’t needed to. This isn’t quite the case anymore.
The roster has very slowly turned over in the last year. Mostly, this has been a good thing. Several departures over the last 12 months (Kei Kamara, Jimmy Nielsen, Rosell) have created space for new players to break into the team (Dom Dwyer, Eric Kronberg, Olum). The absence of Besler and Zusi during the World Cup has opened up playing time for Saad, Erik Palmer-Brown and Kevin Ellis. Injuries and dips in form to established players have helped Antonio Dovale, Sal Zizzo and Igor Juliao (all pre-season additions) see increased playing time too.
As the top-tier players have left, others have stepped up. That’s how smart teams build for sustained success. Dwyer and Juliao, especially, have earned deserved plaudits for their play in expanded roles. Dwyer has pushed Bieler out of the picture almost entirely; Juliao is making his case to supplant the injured Chance Myers.
However, that slow churn has a downside too. When combined with sudden departures, it can stretch out an already thin 30-man roster.
Since May, Vermes has often had just enough outfield players to make an 18-man game day roster. Against Portland recently, he only had 16 players available. It’s a testament to KC’s depth that they’ve managed to stay in contention.
Even with one move made and in-flux nature of the roster, the “Rosell transfer money” (reportedly more than $1 million) doesn’t appear to be burning a hole in Vermes’ pocket.
“We’re not trying to go crazy in the window,” Vermes told The Star’s Sam McDowell. “We don’t think we need to. Although we have some injuries and things like that — so we do need to add a few players here in there — we want to make sure we maintain a very good position going into the winter window at the start of 2015.”
That’s a solid strategy, one that has served Kansas City well this far.
But the team needs more than what it currently has to stay competitive. For example, recent injuries to midfielders Paulo Nagamura and Feilhaber illustrated how shallow KC’s depth really is in the middle — and how much Rosell could paper over faults. The reserve midfielders have mostly failed to impress: Alex Martinez has already been cut, Victor Munoz’s only appearance was forgettable, Medranda has been inconsistent and Mikey Lopez is completely untested in MLS.
To make matters worse, Olum has shown he’s the only midfielder with the awareness to help an often make-shift defense hold its shape. Some money could definitely be spent to help solidify the team’s core.
It’s highly like that the team has earmarked the Rosell money to help deal with the internal matter of addressing the Besler/Zusi situation. Potentially, KC could offer one (or both*) a designated-player level contract. With Besler drawing interest from many teams in Europe, offering him a DP-level contract (a la his national team partner Omar Gonzalez) could be the best (or only) card Sporting KC has to play.
*Sporting would likely need to buy a third DP slot or let Bieler find a new home to accomplish this.
But what if one (or both) leaves? Can this current roster — without perhaps three players form its MLS Cup winning squad — stay in contention again without adding more to the mix?
Can KC’s current roster compete with the stacked current league leaders Seattle? Or the deep pockets of Toronto and Portland? Or the potent offenses of New England and New York? Or the resurgent D.C. United?
The league is growing up fast and the competition is improving rapidly.
If Kansas City wants to keep its high ambitions and keep up with the rest of the league in the chase for the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup, simply uncovering and developing talent might not be enough anymore.