When it comes to player development, Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes preaches patience.
Truthfully, he doesn’t have much of a choice. The reality is very few players leave college with the skill set, mentality and tactical acumen to make much, if any, impact in Major League Soccer without some serious seasoning.
“It takes time,” Vermes said. “The key is making sure guys are progressing. There is no such thing as standing still. You’re either progressing or you are going backwards.”
These days, Kansas City’s young core – 18 of Sporting’s 28 players are 25-years-old or younger – is moving forward at a breakneck pace.
Obscured by an influx of foreign talent during the past two years is the fact that Vermes has rebuilt Kansas City’s roster largely through the SuperDraft, which has provided the foundation of a team that looks to be on its way to the club’s first playoff berth since 2008.
Current starters Matt Besler, Chance Myers, Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury all arrived in Kansas City via the much-maligned college system, each adapting to the league at their own pace before coming together in Vermes’ 11 this season.
Davy Arnaud, a late bloomer himself, would almost certainly be in that group if he wasn’t working his way back from injury. Eric Kronberg, Michael Harrington and Korede Aiyegbusi have all provided valuable contributions off the bench this season as well.
Even Konrad Warzycha, who was diagnosed with a femoral condyle defect in his right knee during the preseason, will return to Kansas City next week.
Perhaps even more impressive than the sheer number of players unearthed via the draft is that 9 of the 11 draftees on Kansas City’s roster are 25-years-old or younger, which also happens to be the average of the squad.
“The staff gets the guys that they want in here,” Arnaud, the elder statesman who was a fifth-round pick in 2002, said, “The guys that they believe in, they stick by. To expect a guy to immediately come out of college and be the finished product is unrealistic.”
Like most, Espinoza learned that lesson the hard way.
The Honduran international left Ohio State after a standout junior season and pushed through two decidedly up-and-down seasons before he said he felt completely comfortable and confident in his abilities on a daily basis.
“For a lot of players in this league, the first two years are a little harder and the third year is when they really take off,” Espinoza said.
Sporting is seeing that trend to great effect this season as Vermes’ patience with players such as Zusi, Myers, Besler and Espinoza pays huge dividends.
Myers, the No. 1 overall pick in 2008 has embraced the role of marauding right back after struggling with injuries his first three seasons. Besler has become Kansas City’s rock in central defense and leads the team in minutes. Espinoza has transitioned seamlessly to holding midfield while Zusi has forced his name into national team conversations by scoring five goals and dishing four assists.
“It’s all just an adjustment phase that pretty much everyone goes through,” Zusi said. “It’s tough to sit and watch sometimes, but you can’t let it get to you. You’ve got to keep coming out to training and try to get better. Your time will come. And when it does, you have to make the best of it.”
Sporting’s crop of developing talent is certainly doing that, and even more precocious reinforcements are waiting in the wings for their own opportunity to shine.
Soony Saad, Jon Kempin, Kevin Ellis and Daneil Cyrus are all 20 or younger, all of which has Vermes looking toward a bright future, secure in the knowledge that his patience is paying off.
“We have a good nucleus of guys that are young and can go for a long time,” Vermes said. “We’ve got some even younger guys building up behind them. That’s been the idea all along here.”