Anticipating the Sporting KC Expansion Draft Protection List

Graham Zusi
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (March 17, 2018)- Graham Zusi celebrates his first goal in a year to put Sporting KC up 2-1. MANDATORY CREDIT- Henry Hauck Jr.

Editorial  With MLS Cup being raised last Sunday, all eyes turn towards the offseason calendar for Sporting KC. Two teams will enter the league this season, Nashville SC and Inter-Miami FC, meaning 10 teams will lose a player.

With Nashville already acquiring multiple players via trade that ended up including handshake deals to not pick a player from them in the expansion draft, a team like Sporting KC ends up likely to have a player picked.

According to the league rules for this expansion draft, Homegrown players under the age of 25 will automatically be protected, which covers all of Sporting KC’s homegrowns (Gianluca Busio, Felipe Hernandez, Cameron Duke, Tyler Freeman, Wan Kuzain, and Daniel Salloi).

They will also be required to protect three international players since they have more than four on their roster, which is also under the league rules. In years past, that is what lead to the exit of Latif Blessing. But this year it seems much more clear cut.

Sporting KC Expansion Draft 12 Player Protection List Prediction

Johnny Russell, Felipe Gutierrez, and Luis Martins: 

Duh.

Botond Barath 

Barath should be the fourth international on the list. Sporting KC’s record with both Barath and Besler at center back was the best of any CB pairing. Barath showed a much higher level of distribution than what was anticipated. He’s not as athletic as Ike was but he was a good enough 1v1 defender and showed good ariel prowess. He’s only a 250k salary cap hit and he’s 27, which makes this an obvious keep.

Tim Melia

He isn’t going anywhere. Melia struggled a bit to start the season, giving up some uncharacteristic goals. But he’s still one of the best in the league at his position.

Matt Besler

Also Duh.

Roger Espinoza

As for Roger, I could see Sporting floating him to see if someone would take his contract, but he’s still incredibly important in that midfield. If Roger is healthy, he’s still a difference-maker in 2020.

Ilie Sanchez 

Ilie Sanchez is still a few seasons away from 30 and had been dealing with some injury things on and off all season long. When he’s on, he’s one of the best in the league at his position.

Gerso Fernandes

Gerso is one of the fastest players in the league and was one of Sporting’s most influential players in attack. He would also be a virtual lock for a pick from Mike Jacobs (after all, he was in Brian Bliss’ role when Sporting acquired Gerso). He’s a strong two-way player, and his pace and dribbling are a consistent threat. Whether or not he ever puts it together in the final third is what keeps him from being one of the more prolific wingers in the league. Still, he’s an easy protection pick for me.

Jimmy Medranda

Medranda makes less than 200k, is incredibly talented, and will turn 26 at the start of next season. Yes, the injury thing with Jimmy wasn’t encouraging. However, after being off for so long with a serious injury that you couldn’t do much re-hab with for a significant portion of the time, it’s quite difficult to come back at peak shape. He looked out of shape in the limited appearances we got from him. A couple of things make me think he’s a lock to be protected. One, I think he’s the perfect long-term replacement for Roger and he’s better as a box to box mid than a left-back, and he’s the exact type of player Vermes would look to acquire. Vermes just has the benefit of him already being on the roster.

Adrian Zendejas 

Zendejas is 24 years old, relatively underexposed to the rest of the league (minus jacobs), and is incredibly talented. He’s also making less than 100k, and there is no way Sporting want to potentially lose him. Zendejas is good enough to start on close to half the teams in MLS. At this point, I can count about 10 with established goalkeepers who, unless a significant drop-off or injury happened, Adrian wouldn’t beat out. He’s young, gifted, and cheap, and that’s exactly the type of player that would get picked. If he goes un-protected, in two years, people might look back on him getting picked up in the same light they do Latif Blessing.

Graham Zusi

This is the one that is the biggest conundrum for me. Can I see Zusi being a lifelong Sporting player? Yes. Could I see him playing for Miami next year as well? Or his hometown Orlando? Also yes. If it were me, I’d protect Zusi for the sheer fact is there is no answer to the question of, “who should they protect instead?” Of all the players left, I don’t think there is anyone that Sporting KC might be kicking themselves over losing.

One of the biggest things in this musing is that to replace a player of Zusi’s caliber (or caliber ceiling) it could end up costing more than actually paying Zusi the $625k. To be clear, shedding themselves of the Zusi contract would be the only reason you don’t protect him. And the question remains there, what is more important? Getting rid of Zusi’s contract, or allowing a little more time for Lindsey’s growth?

Losing Zusi likely means that the right-back job is Jaylin Lindsey’s. In handing Lindsey that role without competition, it would go very much against the grain of how Vermes likes to construct his roster. He salivated over the perceived depth the squad had heading into the 2019 season, citing the fact that he wanted to have players competing at the highest to win spots on a matchday squad. That ended up not coming to fruition thanks in part to some misjudged abilities, and the injury epidemic that took place in the spring and summer. By handing Lindsey the job loses that aspect of competition for minutes that can help drive the development of a young player forward.

So let’s say you lose Zusi, but want to keep the competitive aspect open at right-back, what do you do? If you brought in a player that with transfer fee and salary combined equated to the total budget hit that Zusi was, it would be a player that is likely of the caliber that demands the spot to be theirs. There is a balance of bringing in someone to compete with Lindsey and bringing in someone that hinders Lindsey’s development. Protecting Zusi is the stance that causes the least amount of hassle for Sporting.

The only thing that could change that stance for me is if Sporting feels the need to go scorched earth after last season, which would be unprecedented. But that doesn’t seem to be the vibe I get from those in the building. If they feel the need to go scorched earth, then Zusi isn’t the only vet I could see getting left unprotected.

So that takes us to the exact list: All of the homegrowns, Barath, Besler, Espinoza, Gerso, Gutierrez, Ilie, Jimmy, Melia, Martins, Russell, Zendejas, Zusi

Notable Exclusions

Seth Sinovic

Seth’s contract was up at the end of the season, and he fell out of favor pretty quickly. The addition of Luis Martins looked great during the end of the season, and I think he’ll be a fixture on the backline for at least all of next season. I’d be shocked if either team picked Seth either.

Andreu Fontás

His contract is ugly, and he’s injured. That might protect him in itself, but if another team wants to take that contract off Sporting’s hands, I think Sporting might welcome that.

Krisztian Nemeth

I’d be stunned if Nemo ended up getting protected. For his contract, the production wasn’t there. He created a ton of chances, but nobody could finish them, not even himself. He doesn’t do the defensive dirty work that Vermes wants from his striker. And if he’s not going to do that, and not going to score consistently, he’s not worth $1 million a year. Leave him unprotected and hope someone takes the contract from you.

Thanks to the homegrown protections, Sporting will be able to protect more than half of their roster. That’s not going to leave too many players unprotected where it wouldn’t hurt Sporting to lose them.

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