Stejskal: Those Ochoa, Yarbrough rumors | SKC's future | Gressel's rise

Sporting Kansas City may not be the sort of club that loads up on big names for marketing purposes and they don’t splash big cash on transfer fees. But take a closer look at the club and Sporting’s overall excellence begin to emerge.

They’ve sold out their gem of a stadium, Children’s Mercy Park, 92 straight times, and have a season ticket waiting list 4,500 deep. Their front office prioritizes and is responsive to fan engagement. They have one of the more impactful community service setups in the league.

All of that, of course, is backed up by their on-field success. Since they shed their old Wizards moniker, rebranded as SKC and moved into what’s now-Children’s Mercy Park in 2011, Kansas City have lifted an MLS Cup, won two US Open Cup titles and amassed 319 regular season points, fourth in MLS during that span. The only teams ahead of them? The big-market and (mostly) big-spending LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls.

And Sporting Kansas City are off to another positive start in 2017, currently sitting in second in the West despite losing their last two games heading into Saturday’s nationally-televised encounter against Minnesota United (5 pm ET on ESPN and ESPN Deportes in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada).

Their 0.71 goals against average is best in the league, as are their seven shutouts. And their 5-0-1 home record is among the tops in MLS. They have struggled on the road, particularly offensively, but if Sporting’s stature around the league has changed at all this year, it’s been for the better. By just about any measure, SKC – despite their smaller-market status – are one of the best clubs in MLS.

All of which begs the question: Where do they go from here? What's SKC’s next step towards becoming a global team?

For head coach and technical director Peter Vermes, the answer doesn’t solely lie in winning more trophies. It’s more about sustaining the model he’s helped create at Sporting, working within the club’s means and creating systems that help sustain success. On the field, that means building a pipeline starting in the academy, running through the club’s USL side Swope Park Rangers and ending with the first-team.

“We are really trying to create a vertically integrated system that develops our own players that are in our model of play,” Vermes told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Wednesday. “Look, everybody wants to try and do that, right? Everybody wants to try to do it, but for us it’s a main objective of ours at the moment. We see the future of our club in that world, and as more and more money comes into the league and as more and more teams come in, the stakes get higher and higher in regards to the spend that people are willing to put into their teams.

“And our ownership group – and it’s not for a lack of wealth and I’m completely in tune and in line with this – but they want to run their organization as a true business. Nobody wants to run their business in the red, they want to try to get their business to be successful; they want to run it in the black. So you don’t see us spending $9 million on a transfer and $6-7 million a year salary on one player. You don’t see us spending that on three players. And so for us it’s a much different model, because if we’re going to sustain, if we’re going to remain competitive year after year after year, we have to do things different.”

That means recruiting players from outside their geographical area to relocate to Kansas City to play in the club’s academy, something teams like Real Salt Lake have done for years and a tactic SKC is starting to use. It means being targeted with their foreign scouting, with Vermes instructing the club’s scouts to only look at players in certain leagues and on certain teams that he feels translate well to SKC’s pressing style. It means being unafraid to sell important players, sometimes even in the middle of a season, something Sporting have done several times in past years.

In 2017, their model is working pretty well. Vermes is “happy, not satisfied, but happy” with his team’s performances. They’ll have to deal with a slew of injuries, international absences and a suspension on Saturday, but the eventual returns of the banged-up Dom Dwyer, suspended Roger Espinoza and his fellow internationals Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and US U-20 captain Erik Palmer-Brown will only make them stronger as 2017 progresses.

Whether or not this year ends in trophies, as three of the last five have for SKC, remains to be seen. One thing that’s secure, however, is Sporting’s place as one of MLS’s top organizations.

Just how close did FCD come to Memo?

There’s been a lot of noise around FC Dallas’ goalkeeping situation this week, with various outlets reporting that the club has been in touch with Mexican national teamer Memo Ochoa and that they have a contract offer out to Club Leon’s US international William Yarbrough.

According to a source with knowledge of the situation, those reports are moot – at least for the moment. The source confirmed that Dallas were in touch with both players earlier this year, but said that FCD had not been in touch with either in about a month and that neither currently has an offer on the table.

While they’re not currently talking with either Ochoa or Yarbrough, a separate source said that Dallas are still kicking the tires on potentially bringing in a goalkeeper, although that could possibly create a logjam at the position. 

That's because academy product Jesse Gonzalez has performed well enough as Dallas’ main man this year that on Thursday the 22-year-old earned a new contract from the club through 2020. His current MLS deal was set to expire at the end of the 2017 season.

Gonzalez, who has represented Mexico on the youth national team level, has started nine of the club’s 12 regular season matches in 2017, keeping five shutouts, conceding just five goals and, though he’s only faced 26 shots, sitting in second in MLS behind Sporting KC's Tim Melia with a 77.8 save percentage.

Julian Gressel: Rookie of the Year frontrunner? 

We’re nearly midway through the season, and the leading Rookie of the Year candidate isn’t a highly-touted Homegrown, a Generation adidas signee or even a Top 5 SuperDraft pick.

Compared to some of his counterparts in the rookie class, Julian Gressel was somewhat of an unknown when he was selected with the eighth overall pick in January’s SuperDraft by Atlanta United FC. Since the season began, however, the former Providence midfielder has more than made his presence felt.

The 23-year-old German leads all rookies with 12 appearances and 11 starts, beating out some more experienced – and more expensive – names in the Atlanta midfield to become an every-week starter for head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino. Among rookies, he’s second in the league with two goals and four assists, and third in his class with 841 minutes played.

He began the season playing in a deep-lying central role, but has recently shifted wide to great effect. He’s recorded both of his goals and two of his assists in the last three weeks, including a two-assist performance – both coming on slick cutbacks to Miguel Almiron – in Atlanta’s 3-1 win against New York City FC on Sunday.

When he plays on the right, Gressel, who began his Providence career as a winger before shifting into the middle midway through his junior year, brings the defensive skills of a central midfielder to a more forward role. That paid off in a big way on Sunday, when he stripped defender Alexander Callens deep in NYCFC’s third before finding Almiron for Atlanta’s third goal.

He thinks his versatility has played a big role in his solid start to his pro career.

“It’s definitely helped,” Gressel told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Wednesday. “It helps me as a player in understanding the game and playing different roles within the game. Even when I play in the midfield, I know what the right winger sometimes thinks and I know what the central midfielder sometimes thinks when I play out wide, so it definitely helps in that sense.”

That soccer intelligence should help keep him on the field after forward Josef Martinez returns from injury, too. If he continues on his current trajectory, it’ll keep him among the favorites for Rookie of the Year at season’s end.

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