Sporting Kansas City’s 2015 season may have ended prematurely with a penalty shootout defeat to the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference playoff round, but that’s given them the opportunity to get the ball rolling for the 2016 season.
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Speaking exclusively to ProSoccerTalk, Sporting KC’s CEO Robb Heineman revealed that SKC’s coaches have been scouting in Europe as plans to add new Designated Players are well under way for the 2015 U.S. Open Cup champs.
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In a wide-ranging interview Heineman also chatted about the Sporting Club ownership group being interested in buying Everton, or any other Premier League club which may come on the market for that matter, plus touched on Peter Vermes’ future at Sporting Park and the development of the U.S. Soccer training facility in KC.
With respect to new DPs arriving in the foreseeable future, Heineman believes that heading to Eastern Europe in particular will bear considerable fruit for the club.
“Two of our coaches have been in Europe already and that is probably going to be our focus,” Heineman confirmed. “We are going to look more at Eastern Europe, Portugal and Spain. We will probably do less in South America this year. Historically we have probably been more South American heavy but I think having brought in Kristzian Nemeth last year and he did such a nice job for us, I think we are going to go back to that well a little bit in Eastern Europe and find a player there. We have a nice relationship with Barcelona B over team and I think we are going to see if there’s some other players in Spain that we can bring in.
“That will be our strategy and I feel like this is an important offseason for us. We tried to make more moves than we made during the summer window and honestly we weren’t able to finalize the deals. That was a little troublesome for us. It is not like we are going to break up our team because we have a good group of core players but I do feel like we have got to reinvigorate that core with a couple of pieces and it is important to go get them this offseason.”
Will those players from Europe be DP players or will Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) come in to play to sign them?
“My expectation would be that a couple of the players we are interested in would qualify as Designated Players from a salary persepective,” Heineman said. “We are not signing [Andrea] Pirlo, we are not signing [Steven] Gerrard, that is never going to be our deal in the current cap structure of MLS where we are going to be signing $5 million annual salary guys. That is just not our formula but these are guys where there will be sizeble transfer fees and they will be Designated Players in terms of their salary. They will be either guys who are either TAM players or Designated Players and we will have to use TAM as a mechanism to work through our current roster cost structure.”
On the subject of new additions, Heineman confirmed that the ownership group he is part of discussed buying Premier League outfit Everton and, despite saying it’s not upcoming, he wouldn’t rule out seeing them try to invest in or buy a PL club in the future.
“It is not anything that we are actively pursuing and I think part of what we did with the Everton exploration was that we really wanted to learn a lot more about the league and how teams operated. We spent a good amount of time there,” Heineman revealed. “I’m not sure we were ever really close to getting anything today and I don’t sit here today and say ‘gosh, we’ve got to go and find an opportunity in the English Premier League’ and that’s the way the other majority owners feel about it as well. I think we will always be opportunistic. If the right opportunity came our way and the timing made sense then I could see us doing something. It is not something I would say we are striving to do every day but it is also nothing we would turn our back on, for sure.”
With Sunderland, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Aston Villa all currently owned by Americans and the likes of Bournemouth now having U.S. investors and Crystal Palace close to a takeover fronted by Josh Harris, why is owning a PL club so attractive to Americans in particular?
“There is tons of American interest but in relation to Everton specifically I never necessarily knew who else it was, I just knew that there were other parties with whom they were speaking,” Heineman said. “There is a huge trend of American owners getting involved and I could see another two to three American owners jumping in there over the next couple of years, for sure. It is the top league in the world and it is just like any other sports league. You always want to invest in the top opportunity available and I think the Premier League is that in the world of football. That is something that will always be attractive. I think with the increasing content and television rights you see around the Premier League it feels likes that is an investment which will exponentially grow over time. It is one that there are lots of people looking into.”
After confirming that Mike and Cliff Illig who are part of the Sporting Club group and the Illig’s are the main investors, are not individually in the running to buy Everton, Heineman stated that he felt the Sporting Club ownership group would stay together if an opportunity to buy one of the 20 PL clubs arose in the future. He also confirmed they would not be interested in partnering with any PL clubs if the opportunity arose, unless it was a two-way street.
Speaking of the future, helping SKC’s core group go further than they did in 2015 is crucial but overall Heineman was happy with how the 2013 MLS Cup champs performed this season, even if a familiar slump occurred towards the second half of the campaign.
“We had a good year and going into the season we had expectations to win it all, so to win the Open Cup was obviously for us organizationally, it is a big mantra of ours that we want to win championships, so to have a year we win that championship is important for us,” Heineman said. “The end of the season was disappointing in the fact that we went out the same way we went out last year with our results tailing off towards the end of the year and not advancing in the playoffs. We all look back on it and feel like it was a bit of an opportunity missed. We had a team where if we would have positioned ourselves better with home-field advantage we could have made a deep run in the playoffs. I don’t think I am saying anything every one of our players doesn’t feel, which is that we feel like we could have gone further in the playoffs.”
Heineman admitted that if SKC had finished the season stronger and secured home-field advantage in the playoffs then “the rest of the playoffs set up pretty well for us” and “we really felt like if we beat Portland we were going to play in MLS Cup.” Alas, a gut-wrenching 7-6 shootout loss to Portland ended the season and some questions were raised about the strength of Vermes’ squad which struggled to cope with defensive injuries.
SKC have earmarked two areas where they feel they must strengthen during the offseason and Heineman admitted the maybe a lack of experience played a part in their downfall in 2015.
“It is interesting because we had depth this season in the respect that we had three rookies who probably overachieved and played a lot of minutes and played quite well for us. At the end of the season those are guys whose engine just are not built to play as many games as they had played,” Heineman said. “There were some games there when we needed to bring a dynamic sub on and we just didn’t necessarily have that available to us. So [in the offseason] we are looking for some depth in the attacking third and obviously we had some injuries tear us up in the back last season so bringing in another high-quality central defender is going to make some sense for us.”
With the Sporting Club group seeing their USL franchise making its debut in 2016, the Swope Park Rangers are, in Heineman’s words, something “we definitely think of it first as a player development tool” and will use it to bridge the gap between their academy and first team while bringing soccer to other communities of KC. Heineman also revealed that a coaching staff “which has been coaching in a domestic league in the U.S.” will be announced on Friday for the Rangers.
“Although we’ve been successful with both Orlando City and Oklahoma City it hasn’t been a pure player development opportunity for us. Now having the ability for the Rangers and Sporting Kansas City to train at the same time side-by-side on the training field, it will allow us to have a completely different opportunity,” Heineman said. “If you looked over the course over the past few years, it would have been great to have the Rangers for some rehab stints for guys like Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic and Ike Opara trying to make their way back into the squad. We didn’t feel like it was the right thing to send those guys to Orlando or Oklahoma. We are really excited because we have the academy from ages 12-18 but we have had that gap from 19-23 so to have USL there as a reasonably effective development tool, we are feeling very good about that.”
Something which has been pretty good over the past few years is the coaching at SKC. Asked about Vermes’ future with many touting him to be the next boss of the U.S. national team, Heineman revealed he’s a fan of what Jurgen Klinsmann is currently doing with the USMNT and pointed towards the fact that the $80 million new U.S. Soccer training complex opening up in Kansas City in 2017 is a big reason for Vermes to stay with Sporting.
“Peter over the course of his career is going to have every opportunity in the world. We have had some teams in Europe who have inquired about him over the course of the last year and some teams in our league, but what has always worked well with Peter and Kansas City is that his approach has always been long-term in nature,” Heineman said. “He has never been a guy who feels like he needs to force a player move in the season because if he doesn’t then he feels like it will cost him his job. We have a good relationship with Peter and feel like he has achieved a good amount here at SKC but he has a good amount in front of him. With the addition of us building this new training facility for the senior team as well as a U.S. Soccer training center, I think he feels that his resources here will allow him to continue to have success. We are proud of the job he has done and we are content that he will continue with us for the long-term.”
With MLS continuing to grow and the re-branding of the Kansas City franchise one of the major success stories of MLS 2.0, Heineman is keen for David Beckham’s potential franchise in Miami to get more time to find a suitable stadium option and is excited about where MLS is heading, long-term.
“David Beckham specifically has been a really important person for our league so us continuing to work with him so he has a long-term standing in our league makes a lot of sense,” Heineman said. “Hopefully everything works out there and his partner, Marcelo Claure, is a friend of ours in Kansas City and we would love to see that group come together. In relation to expansion, there are a number of different cities interested which is fantastic for us as a league but I will let the expansion committee run with that and see what happens.”