Sporting KC on new DP search, Everton talk, 2015 review and more

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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.

[ MORE: Behind-the-scenes at Wembley

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.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage

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.”

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 14: Sporting KC prepare to take on the Philadelphia Union at Sporting Park on May 14, 2014 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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. 

LIVERPOOOL - AUGUST 28: General view of Goodison Park taken during the FA Barclaycard Premiership match between Everton and Birmingham City played at Goodison Park in Liverpool, England on August 28, 2002. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

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.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sporting Kansas City celebrates with the Lamar Hunt trophy after defeating the Philadelphia Union in penalty kicks on September 30, 2015 at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

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.”

NAPLES, FL - APRIL 04: Robb Heineman of Sporting Club poses with award at the 2013 Forty Under 40 Awards on April 4, 2013 in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

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.”

HARRISON, NJ - SEPTEMBER 19: Head Coach Peter Vermes call out from the sidelines during tyhe fgame against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on September 19, 2012 in Harrison, New Jersey. Sporting Kansas City defeated New York Red Bulls 2-0. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)

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.”

RSL knocks out Portland to reach West semifinals (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Real Salt Lake outlasted the Portland Timbers in a constantly changing winter’s climate at altitude at Rio Tinto Stadium to book their place in the Western Conference semifinals, where they’ll visit the Seattle Sounders. A massive amount of rain and sleet fell throughout the first half, followed by a brief period of heavy snow, followed by clear(er) skies more conducive to actually playing soccer. Damir Kreilach opened the scoring in the 28th minute, but the visitors drew level barely 60 seconds into the second half.

Everyone had braced themselves for extra time, but Jefferson Savarino played the part of hero in the 87th minute when he slotted home past Steve Clark from a tough angle.

The career of Nick Rimando, the all-time record holder for essentially every goalkeeping statistic who will retire at the end of the 2019 season, is extended by at least one more game.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased for Pulisic,” praises subs in Chelsea win ]

What did we learn?

  • Slow start leaves Portland an uphill battle: To say that Portland started this game slowly would be the understatement of the season.

After all that, it took Portland 37 seconds to register a shot in the second half. The ensuing corner kick wound up in the back of the net.

  • Portland should re-sign Valeri. End: It doesn’t matter whether the sides are hung up on money or length of contract — heck, even if he wants full control of the club’s roster as next technical director — it simply doesn’t matter. Diego Valeri is the (MLS) Portland Timbers; he is their best player in their MLS era; he is still their best player in 2019. Valeri didn’t play the first 63 minutes of this game, and Portland managed all of four shots in that time. They equaled that number in the first seven minutes Valeri was on the field. If you look up “difference maker” in the dictionary, it will simply read Valeri, Diego.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Damir Kreilach

Goalscorers: Kreilach (28′), Asprilla (47′), Savarino (87′)

Toronto score 4 goals in ET to bounce DCU, Rooney (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Toronto FC outplayed D.C. United by a wide margin but needed extra time — and a 13-minute explosion of goals — to book their place in the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they’ll face top-seeded New York City. The Reds led for exactly an hour, thanks to Marco Delgado’s goal just after the half-hour mark, only to throw their advantage away — after failing to convert a number of chances to go 2-0 up — in second-half stoppage time. The 1-1 scoreline lasted for all of about three minutes of game time before Toronto scored not once, not twice, not three times, but four times in the first period of extra time. Now, Greg Vanney’s side will cross its fingers and hope to get Jozy Altidore (quad) and Omar Gonzalez (hamstring), who didn’t play in this one, back for Wednesday’s game against NYCFC.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased for Pulisic,” praises subs in Chelsea win ]

What did we learn?

  • Worst time for a goalkeeping error: You might be thinking, “Well, yes, duh, of course it is, there isn’t a good time for that.” The playoffs, however, are really not the right time, however, and United learned that the hard way when Bill Hamid failed to hold onto a simple bouncing ball in front of goal. Stefan Frei was lights out for the Seattle Sounders earlier on Saturday and Jesse Gonzalez recovered from a poor start (and was bailed out by three goals scored by FC Dallas), and Quentin Westberg was stellar for Toronto in this one.

  • Set-piece defending, once again: Earlier in the day, we saw Seattle fail to defend set pieces and let Dallas back into their game on multiple occasions. Toronto weren’t any better in the dying seconds of regular time. With under two minutes remaining, this is how they defended a United corner kick…

That’s comically bad for a regular season game in the middle of April, let alone for a dark-horse candidate in the playoffs, up a goal in stoppage time. Every chance counts tenfold in the playoffs, and set pieces are no different.

  • D.C.’s desire still in doubt: To lose in extra time, away from home, is one thing. To capitulate and concede four goals in 13 minutes — almost as if to say you didn’t want to score the late equalizer in the first place — is shameful. Wayne Rooney‘s time in MLS ends with his team down 5-1 in extra time and him being subbed off after 105 minutes.

 

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jonathan Osorio

Goalscorers: Delgado (32′), Rodriguez (90’+3), Laryea (93′), Osorio (95′, 103′) DeLeon (105’+1)

Serie A: Juventus win 5th straight; Napoli cruise past Verona (video)

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ LA LIGA: Real Madrid lose to Mallorca; Messi, Suarez, Griezmann send Barca top ]

Juventus 2-1 Bologna

Juve were made to work a bit — but not too much — en route to a 2-1 victory over Bologna. It’s their fifth straight win in league play and again puts them four points clear of Inter Milan, who are yet to play this weekend.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring with a pinpoint finish from a tight angle in the 19th minute, but Bologna hit back just seven minutes later when Danilo smashed home a half-volley after Juve failed to clear a corner kick. It was 1-1 at halftime, but not much longer than that. Miralem Pjanic picked out the near post and slotted home past the goalkeeper in the 54th minute to give Juve their deserved winner.

Napoli 2-0 Verona

Napoli, on the other hand, had their backs against the wall early when Verona visited the San Paolo Stadium. Goalkeeper Alex Meret was the hero early on with a fantastic double-save before Carlo Ancelotti’s side settled in and took control of the game.

Arkadiusz Milik got on the end of Fabian Ruiz’s cross right in front of goal, leaving the Polish forward with the simplest of tap-ins to make it 1-0 in the 37 minute. Milik made it 2-0 when he got a glancing touch on a sensation free kick from Lorenzo Insigne in the 67th.

The victory sees Napoli hang onto fourth in the league table and move to within two points of second-place Inter.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Lazio 3-3 Atalanta

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Sassuolo v. Inter Milan — 6:30 a.m. ET
Sampdoria v. Roma — 9 a.m. ET
Udinese v. Torino — 9 a.m. ET
Cagliari v. SPAL — 9 a.m. ET
Parma v. Genoa — 12 p.m. ET
AC Milan v. Lecce — 2:45 p.m. ET

Sounders top Dallas in all-time, extra-time playoffs classic (video)

Andy Bao/The Seattle Times via AP
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The game in 200 words (or less): How about one word? Insanity. Simply put, an all-time classic in MLS Cup Playoffs history. It’s a small sample size, no doubt about it, but MLS’s new single-elimination playoff format appears to have solved the problem of uninspiring early-round action. Seattle advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, where they’ll face the winner of Real Salt Lake versus Portland Timbers, with a 4-3 extra-time victory, but it wasn’t without 120 minutes of nonstop drama. Seattle went from 2-0 up inside the first 25 minutes, to level at 2-2 inside 65, to 3-2 up 10 minutes later, to level again with under 10 minutes of regular time remaining. They needed 113 minutes to do it, but Seattle broke the deadlock for the final time when Jordan Morris completed the first hat trick of his career.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased for Pulisic,” praises subs in Chelsea win ]

What did we learn?

  • Sounders making magic out wide: No matter how many times they saw it, Dallas simply couldn’t slow down the Sounders wide attackers and full backs from creating superb scoring chances from out wide. This has been one of the Sounders’ greatest strengths for a couple seasons now, yet Dallas seemed wholly unprepared for it. The speed and crossing ability they have out wide is a huge problem for a lot of teams, especially when Morris and Raul Ruidiaz are moving around freely in the box.

  • Sounders’ defensive struggles unsolved: For all the chances they created on one end, Seattle couldn’t control the game or even slow it down in middle and defensive thirds. Whether it was on the counter-attack, through sustained possession by Dallas or set pieces, Seattle struggled in the worst way. Even after going ahead in extra time, Seattle stood idly by as Dallas created a couple of golden scoring chances and were so close to finding themselves level again at 4-4. They won’t have (m)any more “get out of jail free” cards to play as they advance to the latter rounds.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jordan Morris

Goalscorers: Ruidiaz (18′), Morris (22′, 74′, 113′), Cannon (39′), Hedges (64′), Acosta (82′)