Three Big Questions

Three big questions following Sporting Kansas City's 2021 season

An MLS Cup champion has been crowned, the 2021 season is officially over and focus shifts to 2022 for all 28 (!) clubs as Charlotte FC also enters MLS.

Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.

He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.

The big picture

It was another strong season for Sporting Kansas City, who were among the Western Conference's top three teams essentially from opening kick through Decision Day.

The year included transferring homegrown midfielder Gianluca Busio to Venezia FC in a deal worth up to $10.5 million, as well as a near-Best XI campaign for Daniel Salloi. SKC finished third in the West, and almost eight months of games can be boiled down to two losses:

  1. The Decision Day defeat to Real Salt Lake, which RSL needed to win to clinch a playoff spot. It simultaneously cost SKC the top seed out West and set up the second loss that ended their season against...
  2. RSL in the Conference Semifinals.

The playoffs can be cruel, with one-game samples breeding chaos. Kansas City have given themselves a chance, making the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 years, but they've gone beyond the Conference Semifinals just one in that time – when they won MLS Cup in 2013.

They're poised to challenge again in 2022, but have a few big questions to address this offseason.

Defensive revamp incoming?

Sporting KC currently don't have a natural left back on the roster, just three center backs and only one right back. Of those four defenders, only Andreu Fontas has made more than 15 MLS appearances (Veteran Graham Zusi is currently not under contract at time of writing). Irrespective of what level of quality/budget charge of players come aboard, more bodies must be signed.

Fontas received my Defender of the Year vote in his renaissance season. Nicolas Isimat-Mirin seems to be his starting partner in theory, but was restricted to 15 appearances due to injury. Regardless, another rotation-level center back will arrive, though people around the club are high on Kaveh Rad's talent.

Two left backs will need to be signed, with Luis Martins and Amadou Dia no longer with the club, as well as another starting-level right back with Jaylin Lindsey traded to Charlotte FC (even if Zusi is re-signed).

Defensive midfield stalwart Ilie Sanchez also left SKC this winter. Jose Mauri is slotted to soak up those minutes, but it wouldn't be surprising if another No. 6 gets signed as well.

That's at least two new starters on the backline, plus maybe rotational contributors at center back and d-mid. The front part of the team is set, but SKC are in a defensive makeover.

Will Zusi, Espinoza return?

Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza, longtime SKC linchpins, are both out of contract. They still have plenty in the tank to contribute meaningful minutes, should deals arise, logging over 600 MLS games combined.

Zusi, 35, started 24 games this year as young, since-traded right back Jaylin Lindsey missed time with injury. Espinoza, also 35, appeared in 32 matches and started 24 as well. The former Honduran international midfielder just keeps going.

"[Zusi] I think had a great year on the field," Vermes said after the season ended. "He played many more games than I would’ve expected or wanted him to. 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," Vermes added. "But in every team you need leadership, you need mentors, and [with] both of those guys, that part of it is priceless."

Will SKC use the U22 Initiative this offseason?

While Sporting KC didn't utilize any U22 Initiative slots this year, it's not like they disregarded youth.

Gianluca Busio started all of SKC's first 13 games before his transfer to newly-promoted Serie A side Venezia, while Lindsey would have played more than his 14 appearances if he stayed healthy.

Still, it's another roster-building bucket the team can use in 2022.

“The concept was around for quite a few years before it got implemented," Vermes told this fall. "Obviously some teams have taken advantage of it, but some of it is still wait-and-see. For us, those are roster spots that we’re going to be very active in."

We're going to be very active. Maybe this winter?

SKC currently have three DPs, though it's very likely Gadi Kinda can be bought down. If so, they could use up to three U22 Initiative slots. Vermes said they'll be deliberate when acquiring players in this mold and want to be careful with who they bring in.

“I don’t want to speak for other teams so I’ll just speak for us: it’s a couple simple boxes we want to check off," Vermes said. "The potential of the player has to be there. The financial costs have to make sense. In the midst of all that, is he going to help you win? It’s not easy to check all of those boxes on, a lot of times, unknown talent.”

Depth chart as of Dec. 16
Sporting KC Depth Chart

Couple thoughts:

  • Felipe Hernandez is eligible to apply for reinstatement on Jan. 1. The homegrown midfielder had his contract option picked up by SKC.
  • Do they need another contingency plan under Alan Pulido, if he continues to miss games next season like he has in his first two years in MLS?
  • How many players will need to be signed in defense?