In 2016, Sporting Kansas City made an effort to improve its play from the wings by adding veterans Brad Davis and Justin Mapp.
Fast forward a year later and Sporting KC has done the same, only this time with a younger and more expensive player.
Sporting KC made its first major move of the offseason on Wednesday morning by signing Gerso Fernandes to a Designated Player deal that is for three years with an option for a fourth. The move to land the 25-year-old Fernandes included an undisclosed transfer fee that Sporting KC paid Portuguese club Belenenses, but the investment will surely be worth it and then some for the MLS club if the speedster it has been tracking since 2015 can live up to his potential as a playmaking threat out wide.
“He can play on both the left and right as a winger,” said Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes on a conference call on Wednesday. “He is a very dynamic player, he is good 1-versus-1, he’s a good server of the ball, and has great combination play. Hopefully he can add some more attacking power to our team.”
“He’s definitely a guy that can be very dangerous in a lot of different ways,” Vermes later added. “His major focus is not scoring goals. A lot of it has been providing service.”
A native of small West African country Guinea-Bissau, Fernandes has spent his entire career in Portugal. He has been on the books of five clubs there since turning pro in 2010, and had only joined Belenenses this past summer from fellow first-division outfit Estoril. He finished his time at Belenenses with one goal and four assists in 14 league appearances, and will now try to bring that level of play or better to a Sporting KC team that already includes dangerous weapons like Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer.
Sporting KC is sure hoping that is the case, as it is eager to improve its wide play this upcoming season. The 2013 MLS Cup champion has relied on crafty or dynamic wingers like Graham Zusi or the departed Kei Kamara to do their share of the heavy lifting in the attack in recent years, but felt the position needed an upgrade a year ago and once again this winter.
“We’ve lost both (Davis and Mapp), we’ve also lost some other guys in the past that have played in that position as well and so that was an area of focus with a quite a few players that we brought in,” said Vermes of Sporting KC’s approach to bringing in multiple wide players these past two offseasons. “We brought in some younger talents as well, some guys that have already been in USL and different places and are sort of grinding a profession out and we think they have a bigger upside to them and we’re willing to take some time to see if they can reach that potential.
“It’s an important position within our system and it’s an area of focus for us just because it’s a position of necessity based on, again, guys are tired, moving on. It’s an area of focus for us.”
Sporting KC will need to focus at some point in the near future on buying down at least one of its Designated Players’ salary-cap hits with Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). With the arrival of Fernandes, Sporting KC currently has four DPs on its roster. Only three are permitted per MLS rules, meaning Zusi, captain Matt Besler, or forward Diego Rubio will have to have their figure under the cap lessened in order to remain in Kansas City in 2017.
Good thing for Sporting KC then that it has the financial flexibility to do that.
“Our DPs are in very good ranges in regards to TAM, so we have the ability to do that,” said Vermes. “We haven’t done it yet. We’ll do it as we get closer to the compliance date, which is in March, but we have the luxury to do it on multiple guys.”
Whatever route it takes with regards to adjusting its salary cap, Sporting KC is hoping to get back to the top of the Western Conference this season. The club has been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs every season since winning the MLS Cup in 2013, and is looking to make a deep run again.
Having an improved attack certainly boosts Sporting KC’s chances of accomplishing that, and that is exactly why Fernandes has been brought on board.
“Our scout in Portugal identified him about a year or two ago and he was on our depth chart for some time,” said Vermes. “The problem was it was at a time where there was no way for us to do a deal. The timing became right and we were able to get it done.”