2013 Sporting Kansas City Preview: Is Peter Vermes' side built to win MLS Cup?
2012 record: 18-7-9 (63 points); 42 GF / 27 GA (+15 GD)
With just days left until opening day, MLSsoccer.com is halfway through previewing each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2012 and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. This is part one of two previewing Sporting Kansas City's 2013 season. You can find Part 2 here.
Setting the Scene
Sporting Kansas City have plenty of reasons to be optimistic this season – and a few areas of concern, too. They return four MLS First XI selections in reigning Goalkeeper of the Year Jimmy Nielsen, midfielder/winger Graham Zusi, and defenders Aurélien Collin and Matt Besler (the latter also honored as Defender of the Year)).
WATCH: Sporting's 2013 jersey revealed
They've brought on LDU Quito forward Claudio Bieler, a 20-goal scorer in Ecuador last season and a veteran of the Club World Cup, as the fourth Designated Player in club history. They've also added a US international in midfielder Benny Feilhaber.
But they've also lost midfielder Roger Espinoza – and could lose winger Kei Kamara – to England's Premier League, and manager Peter Vermes will have to juggle three competitions this year with Sporting's qualificiation to the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League. Still, the expectation is for Sporting KC to reach their first MLS Cup final since 2004.
In and Out
IN: D Josh Gardner (12/5/12 - trade from Montreal), M Benny Feilhaber (12/11/12 - trade from New England), D Ike Opara (12/12/12 - trade from San Jose), D Yann Songo'o (12/13/12 - signed from Pobla de Mafumet), F Claudio Bieler (12/18/12 - signed from LDU Quito), M Mikey Lopez (1/17/13, MLS SuperDraft), D Jérôme Mechak (2/28/13 - signed from Orlando City SC), M Christian Duke (2/28/13 - MLS Supplemental Draft)
OUT: M Júlio César (11/19/12 - waived), D Cyprian Hedrick (11/19/12 - waived), D Neven Markovic (11/19/12 - waived), M Konrad Warzycha (11/19/12 - waived), D Michael Harrington (12/3/12 - trade with Portland), D Korede Aiyegbusi (12/3/12 - option declined), M Roger Espinoza (1/1 - transfer to Wigan Athletic); F Kei Kamara (1/30/13 - loan to Norwich City)
Star Attraction: Graham Zusi
Bieler might be under the DP spotlight, but Zusi (right) has emerged as one of the league's premier attacking players and is on his way to becoming a mainstay with the US national team. He's an intense player who doesn't like calling attention to himself off the pitch – but on it, his frequent big plays speaks volumes. If he adds a few more goals to his spot-on service, Zusi could be right in the MVP mix in 2013 – and his international visibility with the USMNT can only boost Sporting's brand.
Unsung Hero: Paulo Nagamura
Look for Nagamura to work his tail off in the midfield, doing the gritty but often overlooked work of ball-winning in Sporting's high press and providing plenty of energy and aggressiveness in the attacking third as well. The Brazilian veteran had some injury issues last season, but if he stays healthy this year, he should pose problems for opponents and show he fits right into Vermes' system.
Ready for Primetime: Chance Myers
Vermes expects Myers (right) to be the next Sporting player called up by US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and with good reason. Myers has blossomed into the ideal right back for the 4-3-3 set: relentless on defense, speedy and active on overlapping runs when Sporting are on the attack. He's also a highly accurate crosser, giving SKC yet another dangerous service option from the right flank. If all goes according to plan, Myers could well be Sporting's third straight MLS Breakout Player of the Year.
Storylines to Watch
1. Will Kamara be back? His loan with Norwich runs through May, and Sporting would love for him to bring back some Premiership experience in time for US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League play. It's not up to them, though: The Canaries have a buy option for the Sierra Leone star, who has gotten off to a stellar start in the EPL.
2. How quickly can Bieler contribute? The stock answer is that he won't be rushed along, but the fact remains: He was brought in to score goals, and that will be the sole measure of the DP forward's success.
3. Has Bobby Convey turned back the clock? He's in is 14th pro season, but Convey is quick to remind people that he hasn't even turned 30 yet, though he's put a lot of mileage on his legs since breaking into MLS at age 16. But after an injury-plagued 2012, he has come back fit and determined, which should give Sporting added depth and another player to create quality chances for BIeler.
What He Said
“We have every opportunity to be very good this year. I think the expectation of this club and of this city should be a championship. There's no other thing to go do than that. We've got the right coach. We've got the right team. We're built to win. We've got the right set of guys. A championship should be our focus.”
– Sporting KC president Robb Heineman
If Everything Goes Right
For all of the changes in the midfield and up front, Sporting's rock-solid defensive core remains intact. That alone gives them a leg up on a third straight finish atop the Eastern Conference. And they finally figured out, albeit one match too late, how to impose their will on their arch-nemeses in the Houston Dynamo. Barring a rash of injuries, there's no reason this can't be a second straight silverware-winning season – one that ends with Sporting in the MLS Cup final.
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.