The Full 90

Sporting KC, Bieler split another disappointing end to club’s designated player dealings

Special to the Star

After a few months of speculation, it’s now official: Sporting Kansas City and striker Claudio Bieler have decided to mutual part ways.

The end comes after a season where Bieler saw his minutes (421, down from 2,109 in 2013) and goals (only 2, down from club-leading 10 in 2013) dry up. By mid-summer, he had become a rather expensive squad player who logged just 116 minutes over the last nine regular season games. He wasn’t even on the gameday roster for KC’s playoff loss to New York.

The Bieler Era started off all right (12 goals in 41 games, lead the team in scoring in 2013 and scored the game-winning goal in the Eastern Conference finals that year), but began to sour at some point during the team’s MLS Cup run with Bieler spending a large portion on the year riding the bench.

His reserve role continued into 2014 as he could only watch as striker Dom Dwyer went supernova, setting a franchise record with 22 goals last season. The speculation ran rampant through the summer and into the fall that he was going to leave. But a move never materialized. Now, he’s going back home to Argentina to play with Quilmes.

I think Bieler is a very good soccer player (and backed him to score a lot last year and wish that Knoda page would go away) and will probably do good things in Argentina. That’s never really been the issue here — Kansas City doesn’t make the MLS Cup in 2013 without him.

But he just wasn’t as good of a fit in Peter Vermes’ formation as Dwyer — and he wasn’t going to be a game-changing substitute or a playmaker on par with Benny Feilhaber either.

His departure leaves the team with an open spot on the roster, but is yet another frustrating end for a Designated Player* in Kansas City.

*The Designated Player rule — for those who don’t obsessively follow roster mechanics — was created in 2007 as a way for clubs to spend over their salary cap to bring in special big-money players — such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry, etc., etc. (Informally, it’s called the Beckham Rule.) It has since been adapted in recent seasons to allow teams to give players raises above the salary cap to keep high-level payers in MLS (Graham Zusi and Matt Besler are obvious examples) and to allow teams to spend to attract young talent (Erick “Cubo” Torres is one).

Kansas City has had six DPs total in club history: Claudio Lopez (2008-09), Omar Bravo (2011), Jeferson (2011), Bieler (2013-14), Besler (2014-present) and Zusi (2014-present).

The four acquired designated players all have left mostly unceremoniously and none lasted more than two seasons in KC.*

*I’m excluding Besler and Zusi from this conversation as both were developed via the draft and made into DP’s as a way to dissuade them from leaving the club after the World Cup.

▪ Lopez was a very good player nearing the end of a solid career. He was KC’s first really big-name foreign signing (Carlos Marinelli only sorta counts) and was well-known in Spain and Latin America. For KC, he scored 13 goals in 57 MLS appearances — including this beauty in the friendly confines of CommunityAmerica Ballpark.

(Poor Donovan Ricketts. He was actually subbed off after that goal.)

He was a top-notch player (probably the best technical player on the team both seasons), but left before the ’10 season after a difference in opinion with management about his contract status. He had a pretty unspectacular one-year spell with Colorado (where he’s now part of the front office).

▪ Bravo, a Mexican legend with Chivas de Guadalajara, was acquired in 2011 and instantly became the face of the franchise as they navigated the “Sporting” re-brand. The clever and crafty goal poacher picked up nine goals for KC (tied with Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara for the team lead).

Shortly after the season ended, Bravo announced that he was leaving KC and joining Cruz Azul in the Mexican League. (It was never made public why he left so abruptly, but it maybe/possibly/could’ve been the fact that he played just five minutes during the playoffs that season.)

▪ Next came Jeferson. The Brazilian midfielder made only nine appearances after coming over in the summer transfer window on loan from Vasco Da Gama. You can make a compelling argument that the rise of Graham Zusi (that was the summer he showed signs of what he could truly become) pushed Jeferson to the periphery. You could also make a compelling case that he wasn’t very good at soccer or, at the very least, not a good fit in MLS.

Now, Bieler is leaving town. He spent two years here — the same length in KC as Lopez, however, both played less than 100 league games combined. While neither was exactly a failure*, two years isn’t really the return on investment KC likely expected from the financial outlay required to sign them.

But, with Designated Players suddenly all the rage around the league, many have taken up asking the question of who will KC go after next with an open spot? Who’s the “big” player Vermes will set his sights on?

There’s an obvious hole to fill, so why haven’t Sporting KC filled it?

Basically: Where is Sporting KC’s big splash?

I suspect that some of this is driven by fans who want to see Sporting KC snag a big name like Sebastian Givinco, Jozy Altidore, Mixx Diskerud, etc., etc. That’s understandable, but it goes against a lot of what we’ve seen historically (from a roster construction standpoint) from this team.

There is a bit of a troubling trend with all four of KC’s past DPs too: None was a big factor for the team as the season wound down. Lopez was an unused substitute over his last three games with KC in 2009; Jeferson and Bravo combined for 13 minutes as subs against Houston in the 2011 Eastern Conference Final; and Bieler wasn’t even in the match day 18 for KC’s loss to New York in the play-in game.

Players in that economic stratosphere should be leading the team, not watching from the bench.

Despite the financial backing at Sporting KC — by all accounts, KC is in good economic shape on all fronts and haven’t been considered “cheap” at many points in the last five seasons — the franchise isn’t Toronto FC or Seattle. Meaning, KC can’t casually drop millions (with an “s”) on two players — or at least they haven’t shown that up to this point — and they certainly can’t afford to have big-money signings leave town after just two seasons or be non-factors when the team needs them most.

Also, with the collective bargaining agreement still an unknown (meaning salary cap and roster size aren’t totally settled), it might not be prudent to over-commit to something at this stage. Consider that most of the “big splash” action this offseason are teams in need of quick fixes (Toronto) or are starting from scratch (Orlando/New York).

That doesn’t mean KC won’t chase a player or two this season — either before training camp or after. They very well might; it’s a very interesting time in MLS with lots of high-level players joining the league in Orlando, New York and especially Toronto.

But the point is, that route hasn’t really been a path to success for KC and they also might not have to take it.

Kansas City will likely head into 2015 with two Designated Players under contract (Besler/Zusi) —which, for the record, is double the number of DPs they’ve ever had to start a season in franchise history. They also re-signed one of the league’s top scorers (Dwyer) and brought back midfield engine Roger Espinoza.

Locking up those four guys — presumably for their athletic primes in the case of Besler/Zusi/Espinoza — might not qualify as a huge “splash,” but are all solid team moves. Which is exactly the sort of moves a team like KC has to make. (The same goes for Real Salt Lake.) Consider how successful Vermes has been in acquiring just-below-DP-level players: Benny Feilhaber, Aurelien Collin, Oriol Rosell, Jimmy Nielsen and Julio Cesar to name five.

Developing and finding under-valued talent has always been a hallmark of the Vermes regime. Finding and securing long-term talent via the Designated Player Rule hasn’t.

I expect that trend could continue for a while.

It’s a MLS variation of the “money ball” approach in baseball, and it has worked — despite last year’s woes, KC is behind only Seattle and Los Angeles in earning points the last three seasons and SKC has one more MLS Cup than big-spenders Seattle, Toronto and New York Red Bulls have combined in that span.