A club with realistic MLS Cup aspirations vs. a once-dominant team that hasn’t made the MLS Cup Playoffs since 2007. Looks like a major First Kick mismatch, doesn’t it?
Add in some last-minute good news about regarding midfielder Graham Zusi’s return from a right quad strain – giving Sporting Kansas City a full-strength starting XI – and manager Peter Vermes’ side would seem to take an even bigger advantage into Saturday’s season opener at D.C. United (7:30 pm ET; MLS Live).
Still, neither Vermes nor any of his players are looking past the Black-and-Red to next week’s home opener.
“They’ve had four consecutive seasons where they haven’t gotten to the postseason, and I think that’s a huge motivator for any team,” Vermes said earlier this week. “I think whenever it’s the first game of the season, whether it’s home or away, there’s always a tremendous excitement and energy for both teams – but the home team always comes out a little different, maybe bigger than they would as the season goes along.
“Point two, they’ve improved from a year ago,” he added. “They’ve changed some major positions on their team and kept some guys who are important to their club.”
The biggest holdover from last year’s squad, which finished seventh in the Eastern Conference, is 2011 league MVP Dwayne De Rosario. United, whose four MLS Cups and four Supporters’ Shields are both league records, are also counting on Albanian Designated Player Hamdi Salihi to provide another scoring threat up top alongside De Rosario.
“He’s a real goal-scorer," Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said of Salihi, who has 142 goals in his club career and nine for the Albanian national team. "I remember he was close to going to some Danish teams some years ago. I think he will be a great player for D.C.”
With midfielders Andy Najar and Chris Pontius also in the offensive mix, Sporting center back Matt Besler said, United will pose a challenge to any defense.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons up top. It’s just a dangerous group,” Besler said. “If they’re firing, they could score a ton of goals. You have to keep those guys in check, no matter where the ball is."
And like Vermes, Besler also expects United’s postseason drought to fuel the hosts’ competitive fires.
“Teams that don’t make the playoffs, they usually come out and start the next year really strong,” he said. “MLS is such an even league, and a team that just barely misses the playoffs is going to come back a little hungrier. I think D.C. is going to be one of those teams to watch out for. We’re certainly not going to take them lightly.”
“There are no bad teams in this league,” he said. “You’re not ready, you’re going to get crushed.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org