On January 12, Sporting Kansas City announced the signing of 29-year-old German left back Tim Leibold. The signing sparked a huge debate The Blue Covenant Slack channel, so we decided to bring the debate to you, our loyal readers. David, who is known as one of the most stubborn people on the planet [Editor: David wrote that line!] not a fan of the signature. Chad is significantly more for Leibold. Let’s go to the discussion!
David Greenwald: My first problem with this signing is that one of the oldest teams in the league isn’t getting any younger. According to Transfermarkt, Sporting KC is the oldest team in the league with 27.6 years. Offseason work included re-signing 36-year-old Roger Espinoza, 36-year-old Graham Zusi and 33-year-old Andreu Fontas.
In addition, the club added 29-year-old Nemanja Radoja. The MLS regular season will have 34 games; The League Cup will have at least two matches; and the US Open Cup will return with at least one guaranteed match. What does that mean? Tons of games and lots of wear on the body. Tim Leibold is closer to the end of his career than the beginning and tore his ACL in October 2021. Since blowing out his knee, he has played a total of 126 minutes, the longest being a 65-minute start against Dusseldorf in September 2022.
Sporting Kansas City needs to rejuvenate and put confidence in the players to work through the growing problems. The U-22 initiative was created to encourage teams to bring younger players into the league. The day will come when Peter Vermes will not be able to get Roger and Zusi on the pitch for 1,800 minutes per season and they need capable replacements.
This is a long-winded way of saying that we now have a 22-year-old left guard (Logan Ndenbe), a 31-year-old left guard (Ben Sweat) and a new addition who turns 30 at the end of the season (Leibold). Not the profile of the player I’m looking for to freshen up the team.
Chad Smith: It seems that I am in the unenviable position of defending the old team’s fielding. I won’t quite do that, instead I’ll take a different approach. I’m on the record over and over again that I wanted to see Vermes “play the kids.” Instead, I’ll ask the question, does signing Tim Leibold make this team better? With massive IF related to his health, I think so.
As David stated, Leibold was injured more than a year ago. He didn’t start anymore at Hamburger, not because he wasn’t good enough, but because he was simply replaced while he was sidelined with an injury. In the 2021 season, HSV got a new coach in Horst Hrubesch, so Leibold almost didn’t see him play at all. When he came back, the coach just didn’t rate him.
It’s a football story as old as time itself. Do you remember Ilia Sanchez? Of course you are! He left Barcelona B for 1860 Munich and after a change of coach he found himself on the bench. Does that mean he was a bad player? Of course not! He came to Sporting KC and had a few good seasons before moving to LAFC and winning the freaking MLS Cup!
If PV and his scouts think Leibold is an upgrade, then I think he makes the team better. I must add one more caveat. It makes no sense for Sporting KC to have two international left backs or three left backs in total. They need to move on from Sweat or Ndenbe or this will confuse me.
Our colleague Thad Bell reported that Ndenbe is stuck overseas with a visa issue [Editor: Ndenbe is now confirmed to be in camp with Sporting KC, but he could still be sold]. However, I theorized on the For the Glory KC podcast that it could be a cover for sale. If they can take Ndenbe and flip him for a profit, Sweat can be a backup until his contract expires (his contract expires after this season, although the club has an option) and then someone can transfer from the SKC academy like Nati Clarke or Coby Jones will be the ones future LB prospect. Less appealing, but acceptable, is Sweat’s replacement in the league. He played well until the end and could make a modest comeback and clear his place on the senior list. Ndenbe could still develop, with his biggest fee minimized due to the U-22 Initiative.
David: Chad brings up a point that is actually troubling. A job in the transfer market and building a roster for a league that is not one of the big five in Europe. The U-22 initiative was created to encourage teams to get younger assets to sell. Don Garber wants MLS to be a sales league because it allows teams to reinvest in their rosters and infrastructure. I am not opposed to selling Logan Ndenbe if we want to make a profit. Sporting Kansas City reportedly paid a transfer fee of 1.36 million euros. Can the club turn him around after just one year and make money? Sign me up.
Here’s where it gets problematic: Sporting would trade the Belgian young international for an asset that won’t return. Tim Leibold will never be sold for profit. He didn’t need a transfer fee, but part of the club’s future success is making money that allows it to reinvest in other players, scouts and facilities. It’s just bad business to have a roster full of guys who will either retire with you or go to Bosman [Editor: free transfer].
Chad: But winning is good business. While Sporting KC as a company will look to flip players for profit, most fans care about winning and if Leibold helps bring home a trophy, that’s what people will remember for a long time. Leibold’s record is far better than Sweat or Ndenbe and I would say he makes this team better. Check out some recent stats in league play before he got hurt.
- 2019-20: 34 games (all starts), 3060 minutes, one goal, 11 assists
- 2020-21: 29 games (all starts), 2583 minutes, four goals, three assists
Ben Sweat has one goal and 13 assists in his nine-year career (including six in one season in 2017). Ndenbe already has six seasons behind him and only two assists.
Leibold will make this high-powered offense even better (hopefully he’s a good defender as well since standout players usually look for goals/assists).
I’m not opposed to him not being sold for profit. However, he arrived without a transfer. If the rumors are true, his salary is not to be sniffed at (potentially around $700,000 per year), which is not ideal.
The other thing I would say is that Ndenbe seemed too similar to Kayden Pierre when they were on the court together. Leibold could be the same way, but in limited highlights he seemed to bring something different to the field.
In the end, I will say that if you can sell a player and make money, do it. Then there are guys like Coby Jones and Nati Clarke who could be next in line for first team contracts and hopefully sell them in the future for a profit as well.
David: Leibold’s record is all over the place. Ndenbe’s first season with Sporting KC was as a 21-year-old. Leibold later started. As good as his form was from 2019 to 2021, he had quite a few bad years at his previous club, Nurnberg. Unfortunately, advanced statistics are not readily available for the 2.Bundesliga so it is quite difficult to actually determine if the underlying metrics support his performance or if it was a fluke.
In the limited number of clips available online, Leibold ended up scoring many of his goals from a central position in the penalty area during play. I won’t claim to be an expert on Hamburg, but I don’t see any defenders in Peter Vermes’ system roaming the field for free. I don’t know if Vermes will give him the freedom to roam, but perhaps more importantly, I don’t know if he’ll be able to find space when Pulido/Agada, Salloi, Johnny and Thommy/Kinda all leave to occupy similar space.
For years we’ve seen Vermes’ full-backs push everyone wide with overlapping runs before hitting a cross into the box. Graham Zusi has more freedom of movement than his colleagues, but even he doesn’t usually get into the box, instead making a run underneath or coming in from a wide position.
But attacking is only half the battle. The only advanced data available for Leibold is from his only Bundesliga season since 2018-19. The level of competition is certainly higher than MLS, but Leibold was worse against the dribbler (worse 1v1 defense). Sporting Kansas City scored a lot of goals in the second half of the 2022 season, with Ben Sweat playing significant minutes. However, the club could not stop the delivery of goals. Does the increase in the number of actions that create shots and threats to the goal outweigh the need to improve the defense?
Well, one of the tactical problems that Sporting Kansas City has faced with Graham Zusi’s marauding runs up the pitch is that he leaves a significant amount of space in the channel for the opposing attacker to run into on the counter attack. This tactical vulnerability was more difficult to exploit with Ike Opara covering it, but with Ike gone, Sporting struggled more. If Leibold forces Zusi to run down the left side, that will leave the quick-footed Andrea Fontas to cover the space vacated by Leibold. In the four seasons since Ike left, the club has struggled to address this tactical weakness.
But I want to talk about point #3. Roster construction. MLS has so many roster rules that clubs have to maximize every spot and use a certain level of ingenuity to succeed. A club like Sporting KC has to find strengths on the fringes to compete with clubs like LAFC who are willing to throw huge amounts of money at the top of the list. We’ve seen it in the past (Salloi is homegrown), but if Sweat or Ndenbe are on the way out, it raises some questions about roster construction. If neither Sweat nor Ndenbe leave, is it really a good use of roster space to carry three left backs?
The league has a salary cap that requires players above the designated player threshold to be paid with general allocation money (GAM) or targeted allocation money (TAM). These are not infinite resources and require the club to make strategic decisions about how to maximize the value of the salary cap. Additionally, MLS implemented the U-22 initiative, which allows clubs to sign up to three players under the age of 22 to lucrative contracts without hitting the salary cap in the same way as other older players. Logan Ndenbe is one of three U-22 players on the roster. If he stays but is demoted to the reserves, are his €1.3m transfers and $350,000 annual salary a good use of the club’s money? That’s a lot of money to devote to a backup. If Ndenbe is on his way out, who does Sporting Kansas City bring in as another U-22 player? Not increasing those places is a missed opportunity.
Chad: David, you make some excellent points and I have to admit I played devil’s advocate a bit. I don’t agree with the three left backs on the list either and a bit of my argument tries to rationalize things. If in fact all three players stay, I am very confused. That’s three guys on the senior roster, taking up two international spots and an U-22 spot. You only get 20 senior places, eight internationals and three U-22! (As for that potentially open U-22 spot, maybe a defensive midfielder of the future?)
I have to think there is a further plan. Ndenbe for sale. Trading Sweat. Something! I will refer to my usual trope, “In Peter Vermes We Trust.” It’s a phrase that will make many readers cringe, but for my money, Peter has more hits than misses. This team right now feels like it’s built to win (there’s going to be a middle linebacker deal, right??). I am an eternal optimist (at least at the beginning of the season). All will be well! I’m sure of it!
TLDR for David’s points
- This move just doesn’t make sense.
- Sweat was sufficient and cheap as a backup. He has one more season left, and then the club could look for an upgrade.
- Ndenbe was too much of an investment to bench him and if the club does sell him, there are limited options on how and where the club could replace him.
- Is Leibold an upgrade? Could be. But is the value of the upgrade worth the cost? I would say no.
TLDR for Chad’s points
- Leibold is making this team better right now (check out those stats!)
- SKC will surely move Ndenbe or Sweat (hopefully with a profit!)
- We believe in Peter Vermes!
- Eh, I’ve been playing devil’s advocate, but I’m trying to be optimistic. Everything will work out!