When Sporting Kansas City takes the field in our nation’s capital Saturday, 128 days will have passed since last October’s controversial playoff loss to the eventual MLS Cup champions, Seattle Sounders FC.
That’s a break of more than 3,000 hours (or over 184,000 minutes, or 11 million seconds if you want to get super technical) from competitive play. It’s also worth nearly two-dozen transactions in what has felt to be a busier-than-usual offseason for a club aiming to do more late in the season than the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons.
To prepare you for Saturday's First Kick clash with D.C. United, here is a list of the top Sporting KC (and Sporting KC-related) headlines that made the rounds this offseason:
KC Star dives into Sporting KC’s academy investment
The rundown: (First off, do yourself a favor and read through Sam McDowell’s entire piece. A short summary won’t do it justice, and you’ll feel smarter for doing so.)
Two years ago, I sat down with Peter Vermes and spoke at length about Sporting KC’s attempted Michael Bradley bid. Vermes was candid and said the club dropped out at $40 million — about $10 million less than what Toronto FC would eventually get him for.
The takeaway there that relates to this piece is that more often than not, Sporting KC has its hands tied with headlining talent. The club isn’t willing to improve the top of its roster at the expense of everybody else, especially when the middle of MLS rosters are the core makeup of a club and often make the difference come playoff time. Moreover, star players simply do not see Kansas City as a destination like they do New York or Los Angeles.
So to compete with the Red Bulls and Galaxy’s of the league, who appear to have a geographic and financial advantage from the get go, the club has injected more money and resources into its academy system, a decision that is paying dividends elsewhere in the league, especially among fellow small-market teams such as FC Dallas.
Sam’s piece dives into the inner workings of the academy, from personnel to scouting to the patience required to actually see all of it pay off. It’s a must-read ahead of the season*.
*If you enjoy that, you’ll also want to listen to MLS Soccer ExtraTime Radio’s interview with Sporting KC Academy Director Jon Parry. Parry delves into the coaching side of the academy, as well as the overall system and its evolution over the last half decade.
The significance: Some believe the league is moving to a pay-to-play-approach to success with players like Sebastian Giovinco elevating club status on and off the field seemingly overnight. But Sporting KC see a future that has more options, and theirs, they believe, will be decided at the academy level. It’s not so different to that of the Kansas City Royals, who used its farm system to fuel a championship-level team after years of grooming talent. Will it ultimately pay off? That remains to be seen. But the resources are there, and within the next few years, Vermes hopes to field an MLS starting XI entirely of academy players. Again, lofty, but a groundwork is being laid.
Real transparency: MLS allocation money figures made public
The rundown: Don Garber and company have spent the last few years assuring fans that transparency is at the top of their list of much-needed improvements. Fans and media alike have agreed feverously each time it’s been brought up, but little has been done to make systems easier to understand* or, in this case, simply public.
But as of January’s SuperDraft, they are finally beginning to deliver on that promise. Allocation money figures are now a part of press releases, meaning we now know, for example, that Lawrence Olum is worth $50,000 in General Allocation Money (and a 2018 first-round pick).
The significance: Apart from fueling comment sections, this step helps everyone begin to quantify player value easier, as well as more accurately judge/scrutinize deals in the long run. Through some reverse mathematics, we can also get a better idea of how much GAM and TAM (Targeted Allocation Money) each club has, as well as keep track of those values moving forward. Sporting KC was actually among the first clubs to take a step in this direction by beginning to disclose the lengths of new contracts. This news furthers that progress, and will make following this league in its weeds a tad more substantive.
*More on why this is vital itself, below.
SI's Alexander Abnos goes where no man or woman has gone before
The rundown: Understanding MLS roster rules is a lot like navigating a roundabout. You’re pretty sure you know the rules, so you just sort of wing it and hope you don’t cross over a lane and smash into a car — or in this case, forget that discovery lists for former MLS players coming back into the league are impacted by points per game.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that MLS roster rules and regulations are a bit tomfoolery. It’s something the league needs to address, because too often it feels like the only reply to how a deal got done is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
But in the meantime, SI’s Alexander Abnos decided to take that roundabout analogy and spread lighter fluid around said roundabout, light everything on fire and try to maneuver it all with a blindfold on.
In other words, he attempted to explain how MLS deals get done. Which is hard. Like, as hard as raising kids. OK, maybe not, but I’m not prepared to totally dismiss that notion. Anyway, he did a heckuva job, so do yourself a favor and spend 15 minutes (or more, as needed) on this graphic. It feels like a revelation, and really it is — even us media members are thankful for Alexander’s sacrifice.
The significance: Expanding your soccer knowledge is always a good thing, but this feels even more significant. It takes what comes across as an arbitrary system and allows you to see the steps teams have to take to get signature to paper. On one hand, it gives context to the complexity of signing players, but it’s also a handy tool for recognizing why Sporting KC may or may not be able to easily re-sign someone like Uri Rosell or Krisztian Nemeth. (However, don’t expect to understand Discovery Rights.)
Sporting KC, Fox Sports KC ink new TV deal
The rundown: Fox Sports Kansas City is the new home for Sporting KC after the two parties signed a multiyear deal in December. The partnership gives the club a much larger footprint in the Midwest through broadcasting matches. But some locals may be stuck with online streaming only if they don’t have a cable subscription that offers FSKC Plus (or FS Midwest Plus for those within the region but outside of Kansas City).
FSKC Plus will be the club’s television home when the Royals schedule overlaps. In all, 17 of 34 matches will be broadcasted on Fox Sports Kansas City’s main channel. Nine matches will be shown on FSKC Plus, although four of those will switch over to FSKC following Royals games. The remaining eight matches will be nationally broadcasted on ESPN or FS1. Here’s a breakdown of the channels for those in Kansas City and the surrounding region - be sure to check your provider’s listings to see what is offered, and if you’ll need to have Fox Sports Go on your devices.
The significance: This deal expands the brand’s reach and puts it on somewhat even footing with the Royals. While having to stream matches may disappoint some, Fox Sports Go is simple to use and works 99 out of 100 times. Those folks will be able to log-in using their cable credentials and have access to all Sporting KC matches, no matter if they actually have FSKC Plus or not.
Benny Feilhaber making noise with USMNT, in 2017
The rundown: Before 2017, Benny Feilhaber’s last significant highlight with the USMNT couldn’t even be seen in HD on YouTube, because, well, it’s been a while.
Feilhaber has arguably been a USMNT-caliber player since the 2013 MLS playoffs, but it was clear that under former manager Jurgen Klinsmann, there would be no opportunity.
Cue Bruce Arena’s hiring late last year, and suddenly Kansas City’s No. 10 is very much in the picture going forward.
"It's something I wasn't sure would ever happen again, so it feels like a second chance and because of that it's very motivating,” Feilhaber told reporters in January. “So I'm very excited to be back and want to make my stamp in this camp."
He did, and it didn’t take long.
In 13 minutes, Feilhaber lit a fire under what was a lifeless USMNT attack. A game later, he assisted Jordan Morris for the game-winning goal over Jamaica.
Feilhaber’s creative play has been missing in the USMNT midfield, which is why many are expecting to see the playmaker in the squad’s upcoming qualifiers, and possibly even in the starting XI.
The significance: Feilhaber has long deserved a call-up, and given his play over the last two-plus seasons, few are surprised to see him make the most of his opportunity. His ability to push the envelop without completely opening himself up to trouble is what makes his ceiling so incredibly high on the international stage, where the USMNT has often struggled to make work of the ball in the midfield. His inclusion will likely mean time away from Sporting KC, but you won’t find too many American fans upset over that.
Ilie Sanchez signed, surprisingly hyped by Vermes
The rundown: Having covered this club for four seasons now, one thing I’ve learned is to expect tempered expectations from Vermes with foreign signings. With Ilie Sanchez, who was signed in early January, Vermes held true to form for a few brief time. But fast forward a few weeks later, and he was on record calling Sanchez “Uri Rosell 2.0.”
Vermes really praising Ilie Sanchez. A lot of time between now and March 4, but Sanchez is at least in the mix to start.— Sam McDowell (@SamMcDowell11) February 10, 2017
The significance: Sanchez is a unique defensive midfielder. He’s an extremely capable defender, which Vermes expects out of that role (it’s what made Soni Mustivar so effective in 2015 and during stretches of last season). But what excites many is his ability to turn on a dime and deliver lengthy passes through traffic. This is something fans (and opponents) have come to expect from Feilhaber (which is why opponents throw numbers at him); having an additional passer of that quality opens the field up even more, and could possibly put Sporting KC’s new, young wingers in better positions. Far too often last season, Sporting KC’s wingers hit the breaks due to short passes that forced them back toward the ball. Letting youthful legs run down the flanks could provide a much sharper attack, and undo the midfield clog that teams often try to force against Vermes’ side.
Instant replay put to test in Sporting KC preseason match
The rundown: Peter Vermes felt that instant replay could’ve, at the very least, prolonged Sporting KC’s postseason run in 2016.
Fast forward a few months, Vermes was able to applaud instant replay — even if it worked against his team’s favor.
A video assistant referee motioned that Sporting KC should’ve been whistled for a handball inside the box against the Colorado Rapids during a preseason match. The assistant called down for the head referee to take a second look. The latter called for a stoppage of play, walked over to a monitor and within 60 seconds, determined a penalty should’ve been called.
The technology was being tested throughout preseason play, and will continue to be tried at the USL level, with league officials expecting to implement in MLS during the second half of the season. It will be used to review goals, penalty decisions, red-cards and cases of mistaken identity.
Also of note:
PRO officials will have 4 areas of emphasis in 2017: holding/pushing in box, visual dissent, delaying restarts and persistent infringement— Sam McDowell (@SamMcDowell11) February 24, 2017
The significance: Getting important calls correct is always a good thing. Being able to do so in under a minute is even better. Hopefully it will limit mass confrontations, too.
Soony Saad back in KC, and what it might mean
The rundown: Soony Saad was a fan favorite during his first stint with Sporting KC, but he didn’t exactly leave under the best of terms. After a two-year stint in Thailand, the (still) young forward is back.
The significance: The rundown part was quick, in part because the significance, I think, could matter more. Despite still being just 24 years old (Saad featured at 19 for those who’ve forgotten), Saad will somewhat act as a veteran presence at winger. Sporting KC drastically overhauled its winger depth this offseason, but the pool is unproven both within MLS and Vermes’ 4-3-3 high-press, high-energy style. That said, I’m eager to see if Saad is somewhat of a stopgap early in the season — one that will give guys like Gerso Fernandes, Latif Blessing and Cameron Iwasa time to adapt to the league’s physicality (and Sporting KC’s demanding workrate) without them feeling pressured to try and do too much. I wouldn’t be surprised if Saad is a regular fixture early on, as the other wing position acts as a revolving door to try and see who’s able to stick. For what was probably a generous price, Saad is a good get — an upgrade over Connor Hallisey, someone who can buy time for the other wingers to catch up, and a depth piece should the newcomers hit the ground running at any point during the season. His relationship on and off the field with Dom Dwyer also is a plus for the team.