Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sporting KC after Zusi, Besler Deals

Things haven't looked good for Sporting KC since July 31st of last year when Graham Zusi and Matt Besler signed their big new deals with Sporting KC.

Up through the World Cup last year Sporting was averaging 1.81 points per game. 11 wins out of 21. In MLS that usually puts you near the top of the standings, where Sporting KC had basically been since their sale, complete rebrand and move into their new stadium.

2011 : Finished 1st in Eastern Conference
2012 : Finished 1st in Eastern Conference
2013 : Finished 2nd in Eastern Conference
2014... 5th and dropping

The 1.81 PPG through 21 games in 2014 was business as usual for SKC. The team had finished the previous two season with 1.85 in 2012 and 1.71 in 2013. The team was good and on a roll but then the cities midwestern gladiators returned to a hero's welcome and a mountain of riches.

The riches part is fairly rare in MLS. On July 31st, 2014 Brian Straus wrote a piece on post World Cup Zusi and Besler. In it we find that not only are their dogs are sisters but they both got large (by MLS standards) deals of $600k+ annually. Riding the high post World Cup it just seemed to make a sense to a lot of people. There was another side to this, though. There usually is.

Critics of the deals pointed to both players settling for the comfy life in Kansas City instead of challenging themselves in better leagues. The topic has gotten heated within the borders of this country over the past 24 months because MLS, as a part of a larger business strategy, started paying whatever it took to get US Men's National Team stars to come back and play in league.

People that lean on the side of competition were less than happy with the move Zusi and Besler made and warned that not challenging themselves would lead to their game stagnating, or even suffering.

Now, after limping into and out of the MLS Cup Playoffs last year and starting off with two draws and a loss this year, Sporting have played 17 games since their new deals were signed and only 3 total wins to show for it - overall earning 0.76 points per game. 2013 Chivas USA, 2012 Toronto FC and 2013 DC United are they only teams that have operated that low since 2011.

0.76 PPG : Last 17 games of 2014/15 Sporting KC
0.76 PPG : 2013 Chivas USA
0.68 PPG : 2012 Toronto FC
0.47 PPG : 2013 DC United

It's drastic enough that even if I didn't know that the World Cup had happened or that two star players had gotten incredibly large and unusual new deals I would have figured some sort event changed the team's course last summer.

Whether or not Zusi and Besler are playing at a lower personal level than they were pre-World Cup last year is up to personal opinion. Maybe they would have struggled overseas in another league as well. Who knows. It's an abstract argument for podcasters to debate. What's not debatable is that Sporting has run aground since the new deals and it doesn't have anything to do with how well or not they are playing.


MLS is a league with a budget limit. There are ways to out spend others but it is very controlled and really only allows for a handful of exceptions. What this means is that if you are bringing in a highly paid player or giving large raises to existing ones, well, you have to move something else out.

Part of the process for SKC was moving Oriol Rossell for $1.5m a month before Zusi and Besler got new deals. At the time of sale, GM Rob Heineman said;
"The perception from the outside might be that the timing is not great, but from the inside we believe that the timing is perfect," he said. "It opens the door for Uri and for us. Uri came from Barcelona B to Sporting Kansas City, won an MLS Cup and furthered his development on the field. This transfer helps enable us to retain our core players while adding pieces to the team."
There have been a couple injuries to starters for KC of late but that happens to every team. The loss of Rossell and the fact that KC haven't replaced him or important defender and leader Aurélien Collin tells us that within the MLS budget structure giving two existing players big new deals is not the way to go. Competitively, anyway.

Now that we know that the new MLS budget / cap number is only a small % greater than last season, I'm not sure where SKC goes from here. Zusi and Besler currently make up about 30% of KC's budget and will going forward. Unless they figure out a way to drop one, or both of them the team is sort of in a bind that almost requires them to find another Rossell or fill the final Designated Player spot.

Results are down and wages are up. Unless things change, working around these two will be the competitive challenge that KC face for the next few years.

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