It’s been a little over a month since the “Blue Wedding” — a week in December that saw Sporting Kansas City release/waive/trade several notable players to begin the process of a mini-rebuild for 2015.
After a disappointing season marred by complacency and injuries, some roster overhaul was bound to happen. Goodbye Aurelien Collin, Eric Kronberg, Andy Gruenebaum, Antonio Dovale, Lawrence Olum, Soony Saad and Sal Zizzo; Hello Luis Marin, Jalil Anibaba, Bernardo Anor and James Marcelin. The team also brought hometown favorite Roger Espinoza home too.
The rebuilding plan entered phase two this week, as the team — minus Matt Besler and Jon Kempin, who are training with the U.S. men’s national team — reported for training camp in Tucson, Ariz. The camp officially opened on Monday — as it usually does — with the dreaded beep test.
Christian Duke — invited back as a non-roster invitee after being waived last season — continues his reign as the king of the beep test winning it for the third year in a row. Seth Sinovic finished second with Mikey Lopez close behind. (The beep test is an aerobic fitness and endurance test.)
With the club back in action preparing for the March 8th opener against the New York Red Bulls, this seems like a good time to look at the updates to the roster, the challenges ahead and the big questions surrounding Sporting KC.
Time to kick it.
I. A Western Conference appetizer
Kansas City will hold two separate training camps at the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson. The first will run until Feb. 10; the second starts on Feb. 15 and runs through March 1. Over those two stints, KC will get a sampling of what life in a new conference should be like with four matches against Western Conference foes.
During the first camp, KC will face off against the Portland Timbers (Saturday) and then FC Tucson (of the USL Premier Development league). After coming back to KC (and linking back up with Besler/Kempin), Sporting will head back down to compete in the 2015 Desert Diamond Cup, with matches against the Colorado Rapids (Feb. 18), Seattle Sounders (Feb. 21) and Real Salt Lake (Feb. 25). The tournament final is on Feb. 28.
Those last three games (and, potentially, the final should KC reach it) should give Peter Vermes and company a pretty good idea of where the team is at before the season begins.*
*Something else to remember: Kansas City doesn’t have the added pressure/matches of the Champions League this season. Last year, the team had to be in mid-season form by March to face Cruz Azul.
II. The return of Roger
In a season of big-name (and big-money) acquisitions across MLS, the return of Roger Espinoza to KC from Wigan has flown a bit under the radar.
He’s not a marquee name outside of KC, but if he can slot right back into the midfield, he could be exactly the sort of engine that KC lacked last year. He won’t be a like-for-like substitute for Oriol Rosell — but he will be an upgrade over Paulo Nagamura in the box-to-box role*. And he could potentially give Benny Feilhaber more freedom to push into the attacking third as well.
*Nagamura is still a very valuable asset for this team and I have yet to rescind my Paulo Nagamura Fan Club presidency. But he’s never hit the 2,000-minute mark with Kansas City and his 21 starts last year (when he missed several games injured) was his high-water mark with the club.
III. How healthy are Myers and Opara?
While Espinoza’s return is a big deal, the return of Chance Myers and Ike Opara from season-ending injuries might be even bigger to the club’s potential in 2015.
Myers was as good as any right back in the league in 2013 when KC won the MLS Cup. Opara wasn’t a regular starter that year, but he was a key contributor in allowing both Collin and Besler time to rest.
When Sporting fell into a tailspin last summer, a lot of the problems originated from a suddenly flat and out-of-sync defense. Without Myers (who tore his Achilles in May) and Opara (who broke a bone in his ankle in April), Kansas City was left threadbare on the back line — especially when Besler left for the World Cup. It left Vermes with only the option to experiment.
Among the experiments Vermes turned to last year: giving minutes to teenagers Erik Palmer-Brown and Igor Juliao, using a three-man back line (featuring fullbacks Myers and Sinovic alongside Palmer-Brown in his first start) and converting outside back Kevin Ellis to central defender. None of those panned out. Had Myers or Opara (or both) been available during the summer, those problems might have been largely avoided.
According to reports, both Myers and Opara reported for training camp on Monday. Neither will be rushed back, but I’d wager that Opara will be the opening day partner for Besler. Myers might not be 100% fit by March and Vermes will likely take it slow with him as Achilles injuries aren’t easy to overcome — and his history is something to keep in mind.
IV. The goalkeeper carousel is over… right?
Because of injury and lack of form, Vermes was forced to juggle three different starting goalkeepers in Kronberg, Gruenebaum and Kempin — all while the defense was starting to break down as well.
At one point, he even had to snag the MLS pool goalkeeper as an emergency backup for a pivotal week — including a CONCACAF Champions League road trip. (That keeper, Tim Melia, joined the club this offseason.)
Kronberg and Gruenebaum both moved on this offseason during the re-entry draft — Kronberg to Montreal and Gruenebaum to San Jose*. While Kempin still remains the goalkeeper of the future (possibly with KC and the U.S. national team in some capacity), he proved last season that he isn’t quite ready to take on the No. 1 job.**
*Though, Gruenebaum looks likely to retire instead of making the move to San Jose.
**I expect he’ll visit the Jimmy Nielsen Goalkeeper Finishing School in Oklahoma City this year.
Vermes will look to settle that position in the short term with Chilean Luis Marin, who will likely inherit the first-team responsibilities this year. Melia, a very athletic guy that Vermes has been very high on, will push for the back-up spot.
Kansas City needs a goalkeeper who can organize and settle the back line quickly — something that Kronberg and Gruenebaum struggled with at times in 2014. Vermes needs Marin to prove he’s that guy during training camp.
V. The other (new) guys
In addition to Marin/Melia, there will be several other new names arriving on the scene in Tuscon:
▪ Bernardo Anor, midfielder. Picked up for allocation money from Columbus, projects as a likely left winger if Vermes sticks to his 4-3-3. Anor is a capable MLS player and could ease Graham Zusi back to his more comfortable rose on the right-hand side.
▪ Krisztian Nemeth, forward. Formerly of Liverpool and Olympiakos prospect, he spent the last two seasons with Roda JC in the Dutch Eredivisie. The Hungarian forward can play all three forward spots and allegedly has been on Vermes’ radar for a while. (Vermes has a few contacts in Hungary and the Netherlands.)
▪ James Marcelin, midfielder. The hulking midfielder who spent 2014 with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the NASL is a Haitian international (KC always seems to have one of them around the last few years) who has MLS experience with the Portland Timbers and FC Dallas. He is a defensive midfielder and could push Jorge Claros for minutes during camp.
▪ Jalil Anibaba, defender. The former Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire defender was the “player to be named later” in KC’s trade with Orlando City for Aurelien Collin during the MLS Expansion Draft. Anibaba is an athletic defender who could really see his game develop under the tutelage of Vermes, just like Opara/Collin before him.
▪ Servando Carrasco, midfielder. Sporting KC traded for his rights after the SuperDraft and signed Mr. Alex Morgan to a contract on Tuesday. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico is a defensive midfielder and is expected to contend with Marcelin and Claros for minutes.
During the MLS SuperDraft, Kansas City added five college seniors to the club — midfielder Connor Hallisey, defenders Saad Abdul-Salaam, Amadou Dia and Tony Rocha, and forward James Rogers.
Of that group, Hallisey and Abdul-Salaam are the ones to watch, though Vermes has already said he isn’t going to push any of them too fast to make an impact right away.
In addition to Christian Duke — an academy product and KC native — there are three other non-roster invitees in training camp: Felipe Hernandez* (a member of KC’s U-16 academy team) and goalkeepers Matt Bersano (a graduate of Real Salt Lake’s Arizona residency program) and Kevin Corby (most recently of the St. Louis Ambush indoor team, he’s trained with KC in the past).
*Hernandez moved to Kansas City last summer to join the academy’s first team. He had been Sporting Nashville Heroes, an affiliate club in Tennessee.
VI. If not now, when?
This could be an interesting camp for three mid-roster players: Mikey Lopez, Jimmy Medranda and Kevin Ellis.
Ellis just signed a new deal with KC and could be facing some pressure from new draft pick Abdul-Salaam for primary backup at the fullback positions. After an up-and-down campaign that saw him play reasonably well at times all across the back line, Ellis will need to come through on his promise as a sturdy two-way defender who makes good decisions with the ball.
Kansas City’s midfield has gotten a lot deeper this offseason, with Benny Feilhaber, Espinoza, Paulo Nagamura, Jorge Claros, Marcelin and maybe Anor fighting for playing time. Where does that leave Medranda and Lopez?
Both were given chances last season, neither really took hold of them. Both are still incredibly young (Medranda is 20, Lopez is 21) though, so it’s too early to write them off entirely.
Without an extended Open Cup run, it’s hard to imagine all three getting a ton of playing time though. They will need to impress when given a chance wherever that might be, or else chances might not come later in the season or into the future.
A good camp could see them claw onto a much deeper roster this season. If they falter, they are candidates to to head down to Oklahoma City.
VII. What happens if Dom gets hurt … or is gone for a bit?
Just glancing at the roster, it appears the shallowest part of the roster is at forward. With Claudio Bieler, Soony Saad and C.J. Sapong all gone, KC’s only listed forwards are Dom Dwyer, Nemeth and Jacob Peterson (who played a bit last year as a fullback). Zusi and Anor aren’t listed as forwards, but project as wide forwards if Vermes continues to use the 4-3-3. The club’s first draft pick Hallisey is also a wid player.
That doesn’t leave a lot of depth behind Dwyer.
If Dwyer picks up an injury (knock on wood, thus far he’s been an armored tank) or decides to entertain an offer overseas (always a possibility) the only true replacement is Nemeth — not exactly a proven goalscorer in this league.
Of course, the departure of Bieler (the expensive backup last year) is still fresh and the international transfer window hasn’t even opened yet, so there’s a possibility that KC isn’t done shopping for a backup at that position. But it’s something to watch closely.