2012 in Review: Sporting Kansas City
MLSsoccer.com continues to take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 18-7-9 (63 points); 42 GF / 27 GA (+15 GD)
This was supposed to be Sporting Kansas City's year to break through to the MLS Cup final after last year's heartbreak in the Eastern Conference Championship. Didn't happen – but 2012 can hardly be called an across-the board disappointment, despite Sporting's exit in the East semifinals.
They snapped a seven-year silverware drought, landed four players on the Best XI for 2012 (including the Goalkeeper and Defender of the Year), and qualified for the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League.
Livestrong Sporting Park earned international honors for its amenities and atmosphere, and Kansas City – desperate for a winner with its other pro franchises mired in mediocrity or worse – embraced the team like never before.
And while the season ended far earlier than they had hoped, Sporting found a reason for hope in the way they finally imposed their will on their nemesis – even if it wasn't quite enough to extend their 2012 campaign.
Best Moment of the Year
There were two, actually, in quick succession. And on one of them, Sporting didn't even touch the ball.
On Aug. 8, with the US Open Cup final even, 1-1, after 120 minutes and the penalty-kick stage in its fifth round, Seattle's Michael Gspurning saved Paulo Nagamura's spot kick to preserve a 2-2 deadlock.
Not so fast, referee Ricardo Salazar said; Gspurning had come off his line before the kick, and Nagamura was entitled to a retake. He buried it. Then, with tongue-wagging Sporting 'keeper Jimmy Nielsen taunting him from the moment he set the ball on the spot, the Sounders' Eddie Johnson fired his last-ditch attempt high. Livestrong Sporting Park erupted in celebration of the club's first silverware since 2004, and Salazar became Satan incarnate to Seattle fans.
Worst Moment of the Year
Much more of this, and Houston's name is going to be engraved on this category.
Sporting went into BBVA Compass Stadium on Nov. 4 riding their second straight finish atop the East standings, with home-field advantage guaranteed through the conference playoffs. But just as they did in 2011, the Dynamo threw a big wrench into their postseason plans.
SKC trailed 1-0 going into the 75th minute – not a good scoreline, but one they could reasonably hope to overcome in the home leg three days later. With one well-timed run and a one-time shot past Nielsen, Will Bruin changed all that. The Dynamo took the first leg 2-0, and Sporting's furiously-paced 1-0 victory at Livestrong still left them short. Their season was over.
The winner goes to a guy who was tasked with keeping the ball out of his own end, not putting it in the other team's goal. But when Toronto FC couldn't figure out Sporting's high press in their June 26 match at Livestrong, defensive midfielder Júlio César had free rein to come up and join the attack.
After a couple of early misfires, he delivered an absolute rocket. The Reds left him unmarked on Graham Zusi's 35th-minute corner kick, and César made them pay for it with a sneaky run and a one-time volley that popped the back netting almost as soon as he struck it. It was his only tally of the year, and the Brazilian veteran was waived after the season, but Sporting fans won't soon forget that goal.
Playing behind the league's most stifling defense, Nielsen didn't have to make a ton of saves on his way to an MLS-best 15 shutouts and Goalkeeper of the Year honors. He had some spectacular ones, though, winning Save of the Week honors six times.
If "best" means "most important, though, Nielsen's top stop was the one he made in the US Open Cup shootout. In the fourth round, with the penalty stage knotted at 2-2, Nielsen made a sprawling stop on Seattle's Christian Tiffert. One round later, Sporting were Cup champions.
Media members who cover Sporting voted Nielsen and Zusi co-MVPs, and it's hard to argue with the league leaders in shutouts and assists. It's also hard to pick one player on a team that's ... well, a team. Sporting weren't dominated by any one player, which is just what manager (and technical director) Peter Vermes likes to see.
But on a team characterized by stiff defense, it would have been just as easy to go with the MLS Defender of the Year, center back Matt Besler. Besler isn't the flashiest player on the pitch, and that's a good thing. He has developed into a master of positioning and reading an opposing attack, and that's why he was so rarely caught out. That, in turn, is a huge reason Sporting gave up only 27 goals all year.
And after signing a contract extension this offseason, he should be excelling for his hometown side for years to come.
When Sporting picked up midfielder Uri Rosell at midseason, his time in Barcelona's system made him an intriguing acquisition. By the end of the season, several other things were apparent about the young Spaniard.
One, he knows the game and how Sporting play it. By the end of the season – especially in Sporting's home leg against the Dynamo – it was clear that Sporting Kansas City had found an accurate passer who, while lacking Júlio César's years of experience, has an instinctive knack for the d-mid spot and the versatility to be a threat in the attack as well.
And two, if he follows the typical midfield curve and continues to improve through his 20s, Rosell has tremendous upside that should be on display in 2013 and beyond.
1. Goals, goals, goals: Sporting found the net 42 times in 2012, tied for 12th in the 19-team league. The acquisition of Designated Player Claudio Bieler from Ecuadorian power LDU Quito should go a long way to address that. Bieler had 20 goals this year for his former club. It also will help to have Teal Bunbury, whose season of marked improvement was cut short by an ACL tear.
2. Replace Roger: As with No. 1, this one has already been addressed. The trade with New England for Benny Feilhaber gives Sporting an experienced box-to-box midfielder who should fill the gap created by Roger Espinoza's imminent departure for Premier League side Wigan Athletic.
3. Depth at right fullback: Michael Harrington's trade to Portland left Sporting without experienced depth at both outside defender positions. Josh Gardner should provide that at left back, but there's no clear option if right back Chance Myers goes down with an injury, or to start early-round US Open Cup and CCL matches. Vermes says he's confident someone will step up, which could be a necessity if Bieler's signing maks the end of Sporting's acquisition phase.
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.