Three main criteria guide end-of-season roster decisions for Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes.
Will a particular player really see meaningful playing time?
Does Vermes want something different out of a player’s current position?
And is the financial burden presented by a particular player in the club’s best interest, relative to the MLS salary cap?
All three of those factors came into play this week as Sporting KC signaled some key roster decisions ahead of the 2022 season. The club that exited the 2021 postseason after one victory exercised contract options for two players while declining options for six others. and letting the contract of defender Graham Smith run out.
The six players whose contract options were not picked up include Ilie Sanchez, Luis Martins, Brooks Thompson, Amadou Dia, Roberto Puncec and Wilson Harris.
Sporting KC remains in contract negotiations for goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh, defender Graham Zusi and midfielder Roger Espinoza.
Vermes was coy Thursday when asked why each player was allowed to leave. But reading between the lines, and looking at Vermes’ three reasons for why a player might leave, we can draw some conclusions.
Lack of playing time
Five of the seven players leaving the club — Smith, Thompson, Dia, Puncec and Harris — fit this category. And four make obvious sense, so let’s start there.
Between Smith, Thompson, Dia and Puncec, the quartet played 411 minutes of soccer in 2021; all of those minutes came from Dia and Puncec, and 180 of that 411 came in a 6-1 loss to Leon in the Leagues Cup in August.
“It doesn’t mean that the player is a bad player, it just means that I don’t want to hold them up and they can possibly go somewhere else and get playing time — so that’s one, to further their career,” Vermes said. “Because I’m not here to just hold them up and never play them or whatever.”
The decision that stands out here? Harris. Sporting KC signed the 22-year-old forward from Sporting KC II in October 2020 after he became the youngest player in USL history to eclipse the 20-goal mark.
He made 10 appearances in 2021, nine in MLS competition. But he was primarily used as a late substitute in all nine of those appearances, accumulating just 172 minutes (plus 90 minutes in the Leagues Cup).
The homegrown forward’s contract included $71,212 in guaranteed compensation, making him a cheap depth piece for an otherwise veteran-laden Sporting KC front line.
Looking for more in a position
This explanation fits perfectly for left back Martins, and by extension, Dia can also fit this category.
Martins played the second-most minutes on the team this season (3,138) and is on a relatively cheap contract of $340,000 per year. His high minutes are partly due to Kansas City not having a viable backup outside of Dia, but Vermes clearly didn’t see him as capable of stepping up on a regular basis.
There’s no denying that Martins was an ironman for KC this season. So the only explanation left is that Vermes wants more from the position.
Martins seemed to fit into Kansas City’s system of high-flying wingbacks who get up and down the field, but his final product always seemed to be lacking.
Despite the play-style being asked of him, he managed just 0.21 goal-creating actions per game, which ranked in just the 68th percentile for left backs — despite the fact he played 97% of the available minutes in 2021. His defensive stats were lacking, too, falling in the lower half of the league for tackles, blocks and interceptions, to name a few.
Vermes confirmed that the club will be in the market for a left back. And this is what he’s looking for:
“They have to be a good defender, have to be tactically smart to play in a line of four or five, have to be a good individual defender,” Vermes said. “They have to have leather lungs and go box-to-box from a conditioning perspective, be a good passer out of the back and be in the build of the game, have to have good decisions and good execution in the final third.”
Many Sporting KC fans will rue the loss of Sanchez. The Spanish defensive midfielder has been a KC staple since his arrival in 2017 and played the third-most minutes on the team in 2021, including long shifts at centerback to cover for injuries.
But the 31-year-old is on a $1 million-per-year contract and has slowly slipped down the pecking order both in defense and midfield. Along with a salary-cap freeze introduced to counter not cutting salaries due to COVID-19, $1 million a year is a lot to pay for a potential bench player.
“At the time when we signed players, there were situations where we didn’t know that (COVID-19) would be the case,” Vermes said. “And I think you’ll see around the league that everybody in some way, shape, or form is dealing with that. I would say the financial has a big, big reason why decisions are made a lot of times.”
Sanchez arrived in Kansas City a year before now-captain Johnny Russell and was one of the players who helped the Scot settle into life in the Midwest.
“Everyone knows how good of a player he’s been for us, and I think more that speaks to the guy that he is, is the work that he does off the field for us,” Russell said. “I’m definitely going to miss him on the field and probably more so off it, as well. He’s been huge for us and I’m sure he’ll be missed not only by us but by the community.”
Vermes wouldn’t specify exactly what the club is looking for in the transfer market this winter. He confirmed Sporting will be looking for a left back, but this is a team that also could use depth both at centerback and along the front line.
“We’re looking for players always in every position,” Vermes said. “I say it all the time and I know you think that’s a tagline or just easy for me, but we’re looking for players in all positions to improve our team.”
Vermes said that the club is already negotiating with players and clubs for potential trades and transfers, but nothing is close to being done. He also confirmed that all of the money from the summer sale of Gianluca Busio — a reported $6 million, with up to $11 million in future incentives — will be invested back into the squad.
“All that money stays with the team side, and it’s available for different aspects of the technical side,” Vermes said. “It’s not being taken out as profits or anything like that. It’s all remaining with the team and technical side for different things, and yes for sure, players are a top priority for that money.”