Sporting Kansas City logo — found at www.sportslogos.net
The former Kansas City Wizards were the best team in the Eastern Conference in 2012, posting the club’s best-ever record and looking even more dangerous than the franchise’s 2000 championship squad. But Sporting Kansas City could not maintain their success throughout the postseason, losing 2-1 on aggregate to the Houston Dynamo in the conference semifinals to bomb out of the tournament two rounds before the MLS Cup final.
While winger Kei Kamara has been sent to Norwich City in the English Premier League on loan for the start of the 2013 season, there is still a plethora of dangerous options on this roster. Head coach Peter Vermes, who finished his playing career with the Wizards in 2002, now heads the rebranded club in his fourth full season after taking over for Curt Onalfo midway through 2009. After improving the win totals from 8 to 11 to 13 to 17 last season, the pressure is now on Vermes to engineer more than regular-season success for Sporting.
Can Kansas City use their victory in last year’s U.S. Open Cup as a catalyst for MLS success in 2013? Will the absence of Kamara have any effect on an offense that scored the fourth-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference? Or will the pressure of being the front-runner derail Sporting in their quest for a second championship for the franchise?
January 29, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Sporting Kansas City forward Saad Soony (22) celebrates with CJ Sapong (17) after scoring in the first half against FC Tucson at Kino Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Sporting split their time between Tucson and Orlando, playing a couple of matches at the Desert Friendlies before flying east to take part in the Disney Pro Soccer Challenge. Their Arizona portion of the preseason started with a 1-1 draw over third-division FC Tucson, the host team of the tournament that surprised the Eastern Conference contenders when Patrick Wallen equalized two minutes after Soony Saad’s early goal and then clamped down defensively to prevent any further scores. Mechack Jerome then scored the only goal of the match in the 64th minute as KC earned their first preseason victory over the Portland Timbers.
Kansas City then turned their attention to Florida. The first match of the group stage in the Disney Challenge led to Sporting’s only defeat of the preseason. Reversing an early KC lead from a Graham Zusi strike, the Montreal Impact scored on either side of halftime to earn a 2-1 victory. Sporting knocked off DC United in their second match, Bobby Convey joining Saad in scoring as Kansas City won 2-0. Zusi would score in the 78th minute as Sporting knocked off the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL in their final group match.
Finishing second in their group, Sporting finished their tournament against Toronto FC. A 23rd minute strike by newly acquired Claudio Bieler was all the scoring that was necessary as Kansas City finished their preseason with three consecutive clean sheets. Vermes’ crew finished the preseason 4-1-1 and have not allowed a goal in just under 300 minutes as they head into the regular season.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
2012 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Jimmy Nielsen is back for another go-around in Kansas City. The 35-year-old Dane played every minute for Sporting in 2012, posting a league-leading 0.79 goals against per game — and breaking KC legend Tony Meola’s season record in the stat in the process. While Nielsen will likely continue to be the bedrock on the goal line, the team also has Eric Kronberg, the longest-tenured player on the club as he enters his eighth season. Over that period Kronberg has played in a total of five games with four starts, going 2-1-1 with a 1.20 goals against average. The team also has Homegrown keeper Jon Kempin in the mix.
Feb 9, 2013; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Sporting KC midfielder Oriol Rosell (20) tugs on the jersey of Montreal Impact forward Marco Di Vaio (9) during the first half at ESPN Wide World of Sports. Mandatory Credit: Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports
Statistically the best defense in 2012 after allowing just 27 goals in 34 games, all four starters take up their posts once again for Sporting in 2013. Aurelien Collin pairs with Kansas City native Matt Besler to form the most formidable central defensive tandem in the league. Ike Opara and Yann Songo’o, the second-choice pairing, would start for many MLS clubs. Behind those four is Kenyan international Lawrence Olum, who joined the team two years ago and has been a lockdown presence on the rare occasions he gets an appearance. The fullback spots are anchored by another Kansas City native, 26-year-old Seth Sinovic, and Chance Myers, who was the team’s first overall pick in the 2008 SuperDraft. Mechack Jerome, who was signed from USL Pro side Orlando City after impressing this preseason, will push Myers for playing time on the right side, with Kevin Ellis able to offer relief at either fullback spot.
Who is going to be the holding midfielder for the club? The most likely candidate is Oriol Rosell, the 20-year-old Spaniard that came over late last summer from Barcelona’s B-team and quickly made his presence felt with a goal in his second MLS match. Lawrence Olum and Michael Thomas could also push for playing time in this role, Olum moving up as a sweeper of sorts in front of the back four and Thomas providing more box-to-box coverage. One big addition to the midfield is the arrival of Benny Feilhaber, the U.S. men’s national team stalwart that came to Kansas City from New England this winter. The race to start in the opposite spot in central midfield is being fought between front-runner Paulo Nagamura, former Montreal midfielder Josh Gardner and Haitian youngster Peterson Joseph. Academy graduate Christian Duke and 2013 SuperDraft selection Mikey Lopez are additional developmental options.
The three-man front line will see Graham Zusi slide into the right wing spot left vacant with Kamara’s departure to England. Jacob Peterson, who is recuperating from offseason surgery on his right shoulder, could snag more playing time at this position as well, affording Zusi the ability to move back to play alongside Feilhaber as well. The left wing spot belongs to Bobby Convey, who at just 29 years old is entering his 14th pro season. Backing him up is C.J. Sapong, and 2012 SuperDraft pick Dom Dwyer can play on either wing. Claudio Bieler, signed in the offseason, is the likely starting center forward, though he could be pressed for playing time by Soony Saad, Teal Bunbury (the son of former Kansas City striker Alex Bunbury), and Sapong.
At this point Sporting Kansas City has been the top team in the Eastern Conference each of the past two seasons. The time is getting close where regular-season accolades will not be enough to appease a fan base getting increasingly hungry for another long-sought championship for the franchise. Vermes will have to be vigilant, lean on his veterans and make sure he’s successfully managing his talent if Sporting are going to go further than the semifinals.