Alan Pulido SKC

As well as Sporting Kansas City played through much of the 2021 MLS regular season, they perhaps never had a chance to reach their full potential after striker Alan Pulido suffered a knee injury on international duty before the season started.

The Mexican international grinded through 21 appearances and 1,449 total regular-season minutes, but SKC's Designated Player was never 100%, club manager and sporting director Peter Vermes revealed Thursday.

That includes last Sunday, when he started in SKC's 2-1 Western Conference Semifinal loss to Real Salt Lake with the joint heavily braced, in his first appearance since having an arthroscopic procedure in early October.

"It was something that he was fighting through the whole time," Vermes said in his end-of-season media availability Thursday. "The amount of inflammation that was growing after a game or training on certain days, and the amount of fluid that needed draining out of his knee, I give him a lot of credit. He is definitely a tough guy, he is definitely a guy that fights through it, but at the end, it just wasn’t right. I would say for probably three quarters of the year. And here at the end, unfortunately the same."

Perhaps that knowledge should inspire hope among Sporting fans in 2022 as they process the news that regulars Ilie Sanchez and Luis Martins won't be returning. While not explicitly addressing individual players, Vermes suggested both were salary-cap casualties.

"If you look, the last three years [of the cap] were stagnant based on the negotiation that happened with the [pandemic]," Vermes said. "I understand, but at the time when we had signed, there were situations where we didn’t know that was going to be the case, and I think you’ll see around the league that everyone in some shape or form is dealing with that."

That doesn't make the news of losing long-time teammates any easier, said captain Johnny Russell.

"I’ve been involved in it for such a long time now, about 15-16 years professionally, and that’s still a part that you don’t really get used to," Russell said. "It’s difficult because you share so much with these guys every day, you pretty much see each other every day, so it’s like a family here."

Vermes said he hopes longtime club servants Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza will return, and SKC's postseason roster announcement indicated negotiations are ongoing with both players.

"[Zusi] I think had a great year on the field. He played many more games than I would’ve expected or wanted him to," said Vermes, who relied on the veteran in part due to other injuries. "And then Roger, I thought, actually the same. I think when he played I thought he was very good for us, bringing the same energy. I think the difference is that I think for Roger the position demands a higher demand physically. So at times I had to be more selective with him.

"The fact that we had a couple players in that position that were out for different things, put a little more of a strain and load on them. But in every team you need leadership, you need mentors, and [with] both of those guys, that part of it is priceless."

And Vermes defended the club's continuing philosophy of facilitating their players' goals, be they international call-ups like those that resulted in Pulido's injury, or European aspirations that saw United States international Gianluca Busio transferred to Venezia in Italy's Serie A over the summer.

"I’m doing what’s best for Sporting Kansas City," he said. "I think, if you’re a fan and you want what’s best for the club, at the end, why would you want a player to be playing at the club that doesn’t want to be here and they want to be somewhere else? I’m sorry, I was a player and obviously I’ve been coaching for a long time. And in both those situations, if a player doesn’t want to be somewhere and his heart’s not in it, you have to be in it 100%, that’s the key."

Vermes added that ownership has allowed all of the transfer fee recouped in the Busio deal to be directed toward the club's on-field operations. But it was a business deal second.

"It’s not being nice," Vermes said of his personnel approach. "There has to be a human side to this."