Sporting KC ended 2017 the same way it’s ended every year since winning MLS Cup in 2013—crashing out on the road in the knockout round of the playoffs. Despite having the best defense in the league—including the Defender of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year—Sporting KC wasn’t able to muster enough goals all season long to be a truly threatening side. SKC was third worst in the league last year with only 39 goals (although their xG was significantly higher at a respectable 50.05). Fans have grown tired of a lack of goals leading to early playoff exits, as has head coach and technical director Peter Vermes. Did Sporting KC do enough to fix their offensive woes heading into 2018?
Offseason Grade: B+
By most accounts this has been a very successful offseason for Sporting KC. In fact, one could argue that B+ could even be a bit on the low side were it not for one thing: the promise of a new #9. Both Peter Vermes and SKC owner Robb Heinemann said soon after the 2017 season that signing a DP level #9 would be a top priority in the offseason. Sporting fans patiently waited… and waited… and waited. Yet the mythical DP #9 never came. Sure they traded for Khiry Shelton from NYCFC who has looked surprisingly good in the preseason, but he isn’t enough to satisfy the desire for an elite striker that was promised to the fan base.
Outside of the lack of striker, though, Sporting KC got better just about everywhere on the field. Sure, they lost Benny Feilhaber and Latif Blessing, two fan favorites, to expansion side LAFC. But, the 25-year-old Frenchman Yohan Croizet has looked like a solid replacement for Benny Feilhaber so far, and he’s seven years younger. On top of Croizet, SKC stole Scottish winger Johnny Russell from Championship side Derby County. Russell chose playing in Kansas City over a chance at the Premier League, and he will likely provide the consistent service into the box that SKC has been lacking. Emiliano Amor is an experienced 22-year-old Argentinian CB who will give Vermes some quality when Besler or Ike need a night off. The addition of longtime Sounders midfielder/defender Brad Evans will also bring some experience and depth to SKC. I don’t expect Evans to appear more than 15-20 times at most this season, but it’s never a bad thing to have a player like him in the locker room.
The biggest surprise signing of all has to be midfielder Felipe Gutierrez, who will go by simply Felipe. After bringing in Croizet, the midfield looked to be set between him, Roger Espinoza and Ilie. But once Felipe and Real Betis mutually agreed to terminate his contract, he suddenly became available and Sporting KC jumped at the chance to sign him. He brings experience, quality and depth that Sporting KC hasn’t had in the midfield, and he may prove to be the most important signing of the year.
Key player: Felipe
This was a tough one. As mentioned above, there are plenty of new faces that Peter Vermes brought in to help bolster the attack, but the guy who was considered by some as a “bonus signing” may end up being the most important. The 27-year-old Chilean international brings plenty of experience with him on both the league and international level, having played almost 100 games for FC Twente of the Eredivisie and 35 games for the Chilean national team, including four appearances in the 2014 World Cup.
What makes him the key player for Sporting KC isn’t his international pedigree, though, but rather the flexibility he gives Peter Vermes when creating lineups. Prior to Felipe’s signing, it was widely assumed that Yohan Croizet would be the Benny Feilhaber heir apparent at the #10 position. The addition of Felipe now gives Peter a wide variety of options both in the midfield and on the wing. Felipe could end up winning the #10 spot, which would push Croizet to the wing where he’s played (and played well) for much of the preseason.
If Peter likes Croizet at the #10, Felipe could play the #8 box-to-box midfielder position that has been occupied by Roger Espinoza. Felipe is much smaller than Espinoza, but he also is four years younger. Roger’s age finally started showing a bit last year after playing his second consecutive year of nearly 2,700 minutes, so having a younger, more creative Felipe in the box-to-box position could open up more opportunities offensively while still offering defensive cover.
Long story short, Sporting KC’s newest designated player gives Peter Vermes more depth and options than he’s had in the last four years, and that may just be what this team needs to get over the knockout round hump.
Best case scenario: Western Conference Finals
I think this team has a lot of potential, but the biggest question mark is still where will the majority of goals come from? I think the offense got better this offseason, but that isn’t saying much. The new wingers and midfield will bring some more quality service to strikers Diego Rubio and Khiry Shelton, but neither of them is likely to be the 15-20 goal per year striker SKC wants. Unless Peter Vermes can pull a rabbit out of his hat between now and March 4, SKC won’t have the striker they claimed they needed before the season. A summer signing would be necessary to push Sporting KC from being a good to great team, but without that #9 they won’t get past the Western Conference Finals at best.
Bold prediction: Sporting KC will break it’s transfer record
Sporting KC isn’t known for spending millions on new player acquisitions. Their most expensive offseason acquisition this year was Yohan Croizet at a reported near $1.5M per the website transfermarkt.com. The year before, the club signed winger Gerso for a reported $1.85M. No other club acquisition that I've been able to find comes anywhere close to those numbers. That will change this summer.
I expect Sporting KC to drop anywhere between $3-4M this summer to bring in who they believe will be their promised 15 goal per year striker. Those numbers may not look impressive next to the $15M that teams like Atlanta United are spending on single players, but then again, Atlanta didn’t get any farther than Sporting KC did in the playoffs last year despite their high price tag acquisitions. If Vermes does spend $3-4M on a striker, and if he comes in and can adjust quickly to MLS, this team could be dangerous come playoff time.