Sporting Kansas City faces a win-or-go-home situation Thursday night in the Major League Soccer playoffs at Houston. It’s the seventh straight year Sporting is in the post-season. To develop its own players, the team is spending millions of dollars through its academy.
But Sporting’s investment hasn’t always paid off as planned.
Last month, Sporting Kansas City held an organized media ballyhoo to promote the signing of one of its academy players, 17-year-old Jaylin Lindsey, who says he watched Sporting players with local ties like Matt Besler of Overland Park and Lee’s Summit’s Erik Palmer-Brown.
Palmer-Brown became a soccer pro at 16 through the academy. Besler was already attending Notre Dame when Sporting’s academy was established a decade ago. Lindsey says they inspired him.
“Imagine yourself playing in their shoes one day on the field,” said Lindsey at the news conference. “It’s awesome.”
The earliest stage is what academy director Jon Parry calls Sporting’s "Center of Excellence" where seven, eight and nine year olds are stepping on the soccer fields at Swope Park Village.
“In the United States, a lot of parents are really into having a lot of kids playing multiple sports, and we encourage that, but if they want to specialize in soccer they’ve got to start focusing on that,” says Parry.
Alessandro Cupini, for example, is 10 and has been in Sporting’s Center of Excellence. But Cupini’s parents plan to move from Kansas City to Italy next year and enroll their son into a soccer school there.
Parry says in Kansas City the academy’s ultimate goal is to develop players for Sporting Kansas City. “Have them migrate through our academy and move into the Swope Park Rangers and hopefully into the first team (Sporting)," Parry says.
Which means playing at Children’s Mercy Park. Those players are being seen more often there.
Forward Daniel Salloi, 21, is one of six academy players signed by Sporting in the last year. He scored a goal against the New York Red Bulls to help Sporting win the U.S. Open cup. “This is amazing,” said Salloi amid the champagne celebration in the locker room. “This is my first title. I’m super happy we can do it.”
Just because players train at Sporting KC’s academy doesn’t mean they have deep roots in the area. Lindsey came from North Carolina and Salloi is a native of Hungary.
Of the academy signings who actually grew up in this area, Erik Palmer-Brown is the most notable. At 17, he was the youngest starting defender in MLS history. In July against Philadelphia, Palmer-Brown, now 20, made his first start for Sporting in more than a year.
“It was awesome,” he said after the match that night. “Playing in front of those fans is unbelievable. It’s an amazing environment and it’s really fun to be out there.”
But when the Sporting season ends, he’ll join Manchester City in January for four years at an undisclosed amount of money.
Whatever the amount of millions Man City will pay him, Sporting manager Peter Vermes says it’s out of Sporting’s range.
“They (English Premier League teams) can buy anybody in the world. We can’t compete with them in regards to the kind of financial investments that they make in players. We’re just not in that world," Vermes says.
Palmer-Brown, better known as EPB, has played sparingly for Sporting. The player ahead of him in the center back position is Besler, a World Cup player in 2014. Besler says Palmer-Brown will benefit from the move.
“He gets a chance to go play in Europe, which is something he has always wanted to do,” says Besler. “We retain his rights, so if he ever wants to come back to Major League Soccer, which I know he has mentioned in the past, coming back and playing for Kansas City again — we’ll have his rights and be able to do that.”
But Sporting won’t receive a cent from Man City. Which brings up a question: How does Sporting benefit from its investment?
Vermes says he knows they won’t keep everybody. “That’s also a feather in our cap in that we’ve also developed a player that Man City is interested in," Vermes says
If other players in the U.S. develop to that caliber, UMKC men’s soccer coach Rick Benben says the EPL will come after them too. Benben is also a scout for U.S. Soccer, which suffered a major setback by missing out on next year’s World Cup.
In the U.S., Benben says the pickings for world-class players are slim.
“That culture still looks at us, both coaching and playing, as novices,” says Benben. “A similar comparison would be to basketball. When we see wherever the basketball player comes from — Europe, Africa, wherever — ‘Well, yeah, they’re good, but not as good as the American guys.’”
The top American phenom is Christian Pulisic, 19, of Hershey, Pennsylvania, who bypassed an MLS academy in the U.S. to sign at 16 with Borussia Dortmund in Germany. Now there’s talk that he may be bought by one of the world’s richest teams in Europe for around $100 million.
Vermes is right. Sporting Kansas City isn’t in that world.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.