Major League Soccer is back. And, to get you ready for the season, the Talkin' Touches crew is going to go over some of the biggest offseason developments and questions to help you prep for Sporting Kansas City's return to action. In our first installment, Andy Edwards, Charles Gooch and Tate Steinlage run down the offseason acquisitions.
This past offseason was (again) a season of transition for Sporting Kansas City.
Mainstays Chance Myers and Jacob Peterson left after their contracts expired. Brad Davis and Paulo Nagamura retired. Sporting KC chose to part ways with Connor Hallisey, Justin Mapp and Jon Kempin. Lawrence Olum was traded to Portland. Alec Kann was picked in the Expansion Draft. Nuno Andre Coelho and Ever Alvarado are gone after just one season.
It wasn’t quite “The Blue Wedding” — as it happened over the space of a few weeks and not a single day — but that’s a lot of experience (not just with MLS, but Sporting KC) that walked.
On the other side of the ledger, Peter Vermes and Co. were very busy, bringing in 11 new players — including a new Designated Player (Gerso Fernandes from Belenenses in Portugal), the latest Spanish/Barcelona midfielder (Ilie Sanchez), new forwards (Latif Blessing and Cameron Iwasa), two boomerangs back for a second stint (Igor Juliao and Soony Saad), a backup goalkeeper with MLS experience (Andrew Dykstra) and two youngsters pulled up from the Swope Park Rangers (Tyler Pasher and Adrian Zendejas).*
*It's worth noting here, in case those names above don't knock your socks off: While Sporting KC didn't splash a ton of cash on the open market for transfers — according to The Star, they won't pay any player more than $1 million — they have been investing into growing their academy.
That’s a lot. And it might take some time for the new players — especially those new to the league — to mesh. For today, the question is:
Which offseason acquisition will have the biggest impact?
[Tate] I think Sanchez will wind up being the best offseason acquisition based on everything we’ve heard these last two months, but given the team’s struggle — that’s putting it lightly — last season on the wings, Fernandes is primed to have the most glaring impact.
He’s said to not be much of a scorer, and I think that has concerned some fans, but his abilities should open up the field. Fernandes can take defenders on through his speed and technical prowess, which should open up the field for Dom Dwyer in the middle, and Benny Feilhaber running to the top of the box. Last season, we saw opposing fullbacks sit back and give Sporting KC’s wingers space to work, because that space ultimately wouldn’t push forward. In 2017, I suspect fullbacks will be kept honest. Speed and skill will do that at winger.
[Gooch] I love defensive midfielders, so I'm going to pick up where Tate left off. The biggest addition should be Sanchez.
While true that Sporting KC had issues on the wings last year — Connor Hallisey and Jacob Peterson started probably more than a team with title aspirations should allow — that wasn't the only issue. This was a team that, despite having a very balanced and solid midfield just didn't control tempo. I don't mean just regaining and recycling possession; I mean controlling the tempo and geometry of the field. That sort of control helps keep teams from flooding Zone 14 and overwhelming Sporting KC's 18-yard box. Do you remember what this team was capable of with Julio Cesar and Uri Rosell in that spot?
This isn't an indictment of Soni Mustivar. He's a very solid defensive midfielder. Mobile. Disrupts passing lanes. Full of energy. A decent (but not outstanding) passer. But he's reactive. He's not setting the tempo with the ball; he's disrupting the tempo for the other team when they have the ball. If Sanchez can bring that sort of control — and help Sporting KC play proactively from the back — that can take a lot of pressure off the backline (a problem the last two years) and let Feilhaber push forward into attack (where he's more dangerous).
[Andy] What if — and just hear me out on this — the players along the backline weren't actually the problem the last two and a half seasons? Wouldn’t any defensive unit comprised of just four of five defenders struggle when faced with the kind of increased workload they’ve encountered since Rosell’s departure in 2014? Think about that timeline of events, and tell me there’s not something to it.
As you say, Gooch: Mustivar is totally fine defensively — as a disruptor, a ball-winner, a reader of developments — but it’s that other piece you touched out — the sometimes-suspect passing, and more importantly, the lack of tempo-setting — that’s resulted in far too many counter-attacking opportunities missed, and turnovers in the middle third of the field, for this team to be an elite defensive side, as they were with Cesar and Rosell running the show. At the most basic level, for the four or five defenders — even as the rotating cast that they’ve been — far too much has been put on their plate to replicate the efficiency of the 2013 MLS Cup-winning side (up until the offseason, it was majority all the same players). If Sanchez can deliver that missing piece — a big if, mind — he’ll singlehandedly make the world a better place by making the lives of the defenders behind him that much easier. That’s “Uri Rosell 2.0,” as Vermes previously dubbed him.