Designated Report - Sporting KC

The Angle

Designated Report: Sporting Kansas City

by on 16 June 2016

After only three Designated Reports, it’s clear that there isn’t a universal blueprint to using DP slots. DC United drifts toward signing aging attackers and is burned more often than they light the league on fire. FC Dallas has recently cracked a code by focusing on young talent after some notable miscues. Columbus Crew, meanwhile, doesn’t focus their energy on using the slots, only keeping one on their roster most of the time while building within the salary cap.

As we move into Week Four, we head to the heartland of the United States and one of the most competitive teams over the past decade. Sporting Kansas City has understandably caught some flack for their Euro-based rebrand in 2011, dropping their initial Wizards moniker for a mascotless flavor. As US soccer pioneer and former KC Wizards owner Lamar Hunt passed the team to Robb Heineman, the team entered a new era. This transition coincided with their focus on using the rule, having forgone it for three of the initial four years. You likely know their current pair quite well as they gear up to face Ecuador this evening. However, some of their former DPs are utterly forgettable. Let’s get to it.

All transfer sum numbers from Transfermarkt.
All salaries thanks to MLS Players Union surveys.
An asterisk (*) indicates a player who signed their DP deal mid-tenure with club.

Previous installments:

Introduction to Series and Updating Chart of Profiled Clubs
DC United: C
FC Dallas: C+
Columbus Crew: B

Sporting Kansas City (née Wizards) (founded 1996)
Favorite Fruitless Rumor: Rafael van der Vaart, March 2015

Claudio Lopez (2008)

Age When Signed: 33
Average Base Salary per Season: $720,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.517

A truly dangerous attacker, Claudio Lopez came up through the ranks in his native Argentina. At 17, he moved from local Estudiantes de La Plata to Racing, earning 116 appearances and scoring 25 times before his 22nd birthday. He moved to Spanish side Valencia in 1996, playing regular minutes for the Champions League club. Lopez was also a factor on the international scene, earning 55 full Argentinian National Team caps (scoring 10 goals) and appearing in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. In 2004, he was sold to Italian club Lazio for a reported 35 million Euro fee. While his stint with Lazio saw him face nagging injuries, he still scored 29 times in 106 matches, also seeing a loan stint to Club America before making the deal a permanent one. He went back to Racing in 2007, seemingly nearing the end of his career as a super sub.

DP Years:
After waiting out the inaugural year of the DP, the Wizards jumped at the chance to sign Lopez on a free transfer. Eager at the chance to sign a World Cup veteran from a marquee South American country, Lopez was seen as a key part of the puzzle as Kansas City looked to end a four-year playoff drought. El Piojo (“The Louse”) partnered with Josh Wolff to form a consistent threat in attack, with Lopez notching 6 goals and 7 assists in his 28 appearances (25 starts). The club indeed returned to the playoffs, going a visually-pleasing 11-10-9 before losing to Columbus Crew in the quarterfinals.

After 2008, Lopez had his salary shrunk by 75%, still making a healthy $180,000 in 2009 for Kansas City. While his personal productivity improved (8 goals while matching his 7 assists from the previous year), the club tumbled to 8-13-9, ending with the third worst record in the league. Ultimately, negotiations with the club fell through, with head coach and general manager Peter Vermes making it clear that Lopez wanted more money than the club thought he was worth. He played one year with Colorado Rapids, only playing 11 times and failing to score, before going unclaimed in the MLS Re-Entry Draft and ultimately retiring.

Grade: C
While Lopez was a fine addition to the attack, he never controlled the game the way a player earning as much as he did should. He was a supplementary piece for the Wizards, helping them (barely) get back into the playoffs but little more. Solid, but not spectacular.

Omar Bravo (2011)

Age When Signed: 30
Average Base Salary per Season: $120,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.460

The diminutive (5’6”) striker made his debut with Chivas Guadalajara in 2001 at the age of 17. He quickly became a regular with the Mexican giants, scoring 101 goals for the club before heading to MLS. He was sold to Deportivo La Coruna in Spain for just over $4 mil, but failed to find the same success in his one season, ultimately coming back to Guadalajara in 2009. Internationally, Bravo found plenty of success for El Tri, earning 65 caps and scoring 15 goals, including two in Mexico’s opening match of the 2006 World Cup against Iran. However, he missed a crucial penalty kick against Portugal in the final group match, costing him his starting role for the knockout round.

DP Year:
Bravo went north of the border to join the Kansas City rebrand as the team abandoned the Wizards moniker for their current Sporting theme. He joined the club at the beginning of 2011, scoring two goals in his debut (against Chivas USA, ironically). His form settled into a rhythm, finishing the year with 9 goals while leading SKC to the Conference Finals, where they lost to Houston Dynamo.

Ultimately, Lopez opted to return to Mexico after the season, bouncing around Cruz Azul and Atlas before his inevitable return to Guadalajara. He’s still playing at age 36, having recently become the club’s all-time leading goalscorer (sitting at 125). Recent rumors say that Bravo may be on his way back to Kansas City.

Grade: B
In general, you’d like to see more than a single-year stint from a Designated Player. However, Bravo helped carry the club to higher levels than they’d had in many years, and he was awarded the MLS Latin Player of the Year for his work. He’s still one of the cheapest DPs in league history, and it’s baffling that a player who was the ninth highest-paid player on the team was their only DP. It was a shrewd piece of business which paid off.

Jeferson (2011)

Age When Signed: 27
Average Base Salary per Season: $430,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.158

Few player descriptions excite the imagination more than the phrase “Brazilian attacking midfielder.” Jeferson fit the bill nominally but never quite found the level of play to back the acclaim. A journeyman in his home nation, he played for Brasiliense, Atletico Goianiense, Santo Andre, and Guarani in the second division before catching the attention of first-division side Vasco de Gama in 2009. Already 25, Jeferson failed to find regular playing time and was loaned out to Avai in 2010. Upon his return, he still failed to find minutes.

You have no idea how hard it is to find highlights for this guy.

DP Year:
In another loan stint, Jeferson joined SKC on July 17, 2011. The fan-base was optimistic that he could help the team significantly as they were on the verge of a playoff run. Jeferson saw the field nine times, failing to score and adding a single assist during the regular season. While the club won the Eastern Conference title in the regular season, they fell short of reaching the title. Jeferson was waived, making him a free agent.

Jeferson went back to Atletico Goianiense in 2013 before heading to Boavista in 2014. In the three-plus years since he left SKC, he’s seen the field 28 times, scoring four goals.

Grade: F
It’s tempting to call a player with his salary a flash-in-the-pan, but it’s hard to see where such a flash could be found. This is a case where a player’s makeup sometimes is their biggest asset, and as a 5’11” Brazilian attacking midfielder, he scratches an itch that will always be appealing to clubs. He neither helped nor hurt SKC (trust me, their relative success had little to do with Jeferson), but with his salary hit, it’s reasonable to have expected much more.

Claudio Bieler (2013-2014)

Age When Signed: 29
Average Base Salary per Season: $212,500
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.569

Another short striker (5’9), Bieler debuted in 2005 with Colon de Santa Fe in his native Argentina. After failing to score in 12 matches, he was loaned to second-division Atletico Rafaela, hitting the mark 16 times in 36 games. This was enough to grab the attention of Chilean superclub Colo-Colo, last for one year and making 15 appearances. From there, he moved to Ecuadorian side LDU Quito, where he built up his reputation to the tune of 35 goals in 63 matches. He was sold to Racing for $1.58 million, scoring 8 times in 36 games while also spending loan stints with Newell’s Old Boys and LDU Quito. He permanently rejoined Quito for 2012; when rumors flew that he was being targeted by Liga MX clubs, he vowed that he planned to retire with Quito.

DP Years:
Quito, apparently, had other plans. They sold him to SKC in December 2012 for an undisclosed transfer fee. The Kansas City faithful warmed up to Bieler as he teamed up with C.J. Sapong, Dom Dwyer, Kei Kamara, and Graham Zusi to form KC’s most potent attack fleet in recent memory. When Kamara was sold to Middlesborough before the playoffs, Bieler became even more integral. All-told, he scored 10 goals and added 4 assists in 28 games (25 starts), serving as a mentor for the young Sapong and Dwyer. He came on as a substitute in the classic 2013 MLS Cup Final, making the opening penalty kick in a 10-round shootout that ended in SKC’s favor.

The emergence of Dom Dwyer forced Bieler to the bench, and suspect form and injuries kept him off the field for the majority of 2014. In just 13 matches (4 starts) he scored twice off of twelve shots. At the end of the season, Sporting Kansas City opted to release him.

Bieler landed with Quilmes in Argentina, scoring 14 times in 27 games and reasserting his reputation in South America. He moved within the league to Belgrano in January.

Grade: B-
A low cost certainly helps make up for a lackluster 2014. On top of that, he was a key figure in the 2013 championship squad. Further, one could argue that his tutelage of Dwyer in particular makes him a valuable asset. Either way, he earns a passing grade for an above-average scoring record and the team’s success during his time.

Graham Zusi (2014-Current)

Age When Signed: 27*
Average Base Salary per Season: $633,333
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.404

Zusi spent his full four years at the University of Maryland, winning the National Championship in 2005 and 2008 while graduating with a degree in criminology. Zusi was the 23rd overall pick for the Wizards in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft (also taken in the second round that year: Andrei Gotsmanov, pick 24). He was a seldomly-used substitute in his first two years, scoring his first goal in 2010. In 2011, he experienced a major breakout, starting 25 matches while contributing 5 goals and 7 assists. In 2012, he was a finalist for MLS MVP thanks to his league-leading 15 assists and earned his first international cap for the US Men’s National Team. The next year, he continued his surge, playing a key part in World Cup qualifiers. Famously, he won the hearts of Mexican fans for inadvertently qualifying El Trifor the World Cup by eliminating Panama on a late header.

As a key member of the 2014 World Cup squad, he assisted on John Brooks’ game-winning header against Ghana in the opening match and again for Clint Dempsey’s goal against Portugal in their next match.

DP Year:
As the tournament came to a close, there were many rumors that Zusi and fellow USMNT callup Matt Besler (more on him later) would be signed by major European clubs. Zusi had trialed with West Ham United after his 2012 campaign and reportedly came close to making a move before getting a pay raise from SKC. After the World Cup, Sporting Kansas City once again upped his salary, making him a Designated Player. From 2014 through this week, Zusi has scored 7 goals and added 16 assists. While he misses a few matches a year due to national team duty, he also fell victim to some nagging injuries in 2015 which prevented him from hitting his usual form. The club won the 2015 US Open Cup, earning yet another piece of hardware during Zusi’s tenure alongside the 2012 Open Cup and the 2013 MLS Cup.

Grade: B
It’s tough to separate Zusi from Besler in terms of their impact on SKC. They were given matching salaries and were even roommates for a spell, not to mention both being drafted in 2009. Zusi has been a constant contributor to the attack for Kansas City, most visible in the dropoff the team suffers when he’s out of the lineup.  He’s become one of the main figures that people point to when defending the decision for a young player to go to college instead of an academy, proving that a player can make the national team and earn a healthy paycheck despite losing a few years of professional experience. That’s a debate for another article, but Zusi has become a key part of both SKC and the USMNT. While his form hasn’t matched that of his 2012 height in recent years, it’s tough to argue with his success with the club.

Matt Besler (2014-Current)

Age When Signed: 27*
Average Base Salary per Season: $633,333
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.077

Like Zusi, Besler spent four years in college, this time at the University of Notre Dame. An All-American in both on-field and academics during his senior year, Besler graduated with a psychology degree and was drafted 9th overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Born in Kansas City, the hometown kid was an instant starter for the Wizards in 2009 before having his minutes slashed in 2010.

From 2011-2013, Besler started 85 matches, scoring his only 2 MLS goals in 2011 while winning MLS Defender of the Year in 2012. He made his USMNT debut in 2013, starting all four matches in the 2014 World Cup and earning praise as one of the breakout stars of the tournament for the Nats.

DP Year:
Clubs like Fulham and Sunderland came calling for Besler after the World Cup, ultimately proving fruitless as Besler became a Designated Player on the same day as Zusi signed his deal. Having served as the club captain since 2013, Besler has become one of the best defenders in MLS, serving as a 4-time All-Star and earning MLS Defender of the Year in 2012.

Grade: A-
A more consistent on-the-field performer than Zusi, Besler’s hometown roots have made him a fan-favorite in Kansas City. He sees regular minutes with the National Team and is a true cornerstone for the SKC franchise. He’s a non-controversial figure and a major point of pride for the league and Sporting KC alike. The major argument against him would be whether or not defenders are worthy of DP status. In a league where the Designated Player is often a major draw and relied on as a spark for offensive production, Besler is an aberration. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s forced SKC to get creative as they look for offensive output.

Sporting Kansas City (Wizards) Recap:

Average Signing Age: 28.8
Average Base Salary: $458,194
Average Grade: B-

With the notable exception of Jeferson, Sporting KC is a reliable holder of solid-if-unspectacular Designated Players. More than almost any team in the league, the club is willing to spread their DPs all over the field, and their most unorthodox of the lot has also proven to be their best. They fall right in the middle in terms of average age and base salary. It’s no wonder their grade is just above average, as well.

Next week: New York Red Bulls

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