The offseason commenced on a weeknight in Houston, when an opening-round playoff loss concluded a once-promising year for Sporting Kansas City. It was only moments later, as a recognizable feeling undoubtedly engulfed him, that coach Peter Vermes referenced 2018.
“We’ll regroup,” he said. “And get ready again.”
A consequential time in the franchise’s history looms. The retooling will unfold over the coming days and weeks, but the look of the finished product remains unclear.
On the heels of a fourth straight first-round postseason exit, Sporting KC has a multitude of things to consider — its aging core, an offense that sputtered late in the year and a team that continued a recent trend of late-season descents.
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Which will Sporting KC prioritize?
Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman has acknowledged plans to pursue an attacking midfielder and a center forward. Sporting KC possesses funds for high-priced acquisitions after receiving $1.6 million in allocation money in the midseason trade that relocated Dom Dwyer to Orlando. But not all of that haul must be spent this winter. It can be spread out over the next couple of seasons.
The decision, therefore, isn’t simply whom to spend the money on. It’s when to spend it. And that scratches at a theme that will shadow Sporting Kansas City’s offseason: Should it focus on improving the 2018 roster; should it plan for the future beyond 2018; or should it attempt to walk the tight rope of doing both?
All of Sporting KC’s regular starters are either under contract for 2018 or have a team option for 2018. The bulk of that group will be back. But next season might be its last hurrah. Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Ike Opara, Tim Melia, Benny Feilhaber, Roger Espinoza and Seth Sinovic are among the contracts set to expire after the 2018 season. Some of those players will embrace MLS free agency.
As such, Sporting Kansas City is thought to be leaning against one-year fixes this offseason and instead eyeing young overseas talents who can establish longer-term residence. That’s not a haste reaction to the playoff loss last week in Houston. It’s a strategy the front office has been discussing for several months.
Sporting KC, a member of the postseason in seven straight years, is seeking to build the future core of its team — while avoiding a rebuilding process altogether. It’s a tricky concept, but it’s one initially put into play last winter.
Ilie Sanchez, Gerso Fernandes and Latif Blessing were identified as the key additions last offseason. The club parted with Dwyer in favor of the money. By the end of the year, Sporting KC started a front line mixture of Blessing, Fernandes, Daniel Salloi and Diego Rubio — a group that had combined for three MLS starts before 2017.
The front office believes those are building pieces for the future, and a step forward is a reasonable expectation. But Vermes and his staff recognize that in order to compete with the upper echelon of the MLS — a sector increasingly defined by dollars — some supplementation is necessary.
They can do it this offseason, with the veteran core maintaining it collective grip on the reins. Or they can table that plan to 2018, when several contracts expire, including some of the most expensive ones on the books.
For Vermes, a man entrenched in his desire to equally prioritize the short term and the long term, the most enticing option will be a blend of the two.
A rebuild. A reload. Simultaneously.
It will begin with an evaluation of the offense. While Sporting KC led the league in goals against, it scored only 40 times. That was third worst in the 11-team Western Conference.
There is an urgency within the organization to both generate higher quality chances and finish a higher percentage of them. Both inhibited the club during its stretch run.
Sporting Kansas City’s radar will be wide-reaching, though it’s likely to settle overseas, with the club’s growing preference to look outside MLS. A year ago, it brought in players from Portugal, Ghana and Spain.
The allocation funds procured from the Dwyer trade will help fit larger contracts under the salary cap, an important procurement for a club that is already squeezing five designated-player caliber salaries into its budget. Heineman’s declaration to invest in certain positions is a sign for the other required piece — ownership funds.
Sporting KC is one of seven teams that did not have a $1 million player on its roster in 2017. It has often refrained from the higher-priced additions. Vermes referred to the transfer market as inflated a year ago.
The finances are there to compete this winter. But it’s the full range of factors that will determine which way Sporting KC pivots.