In one short season, Sporting Kansas City went from playing in a minor league baseball stadium to Major League Soccer’s newest darlings, a shining example for the league’s original flag-bearers hoping to reinvent themselves in the mold of hip markets such as Portland or Seattle.
At the forefront of those efforts was Livestrong Sporting Park, which set a new standard for soccer-specific stadiums in North America and, in many ways, the rest of the world. Of course, Sporting’s success on the field was the sustainable fuel that propelled their rapid rise and was crucial in maintaining the excitement and momentum that the facility ignited during the early summer.
For a few months, though, it seemed like that part of the equation was not in the cards. Kansas City survived what can only be described as a disastrous start before putting together a run that saw them finish at the top of the Eastern Conference table, as remarkable a feat as any in MLS in 2011. They did it with a forward line that produced 32 goals, and took advantage of a home-heavy schedule over the second half of the season to make it to the brink of MLS Cup.
Unfortunately, Sporting ran into a Dynamo side as hot as they were in the Eastern Conference Championship, bowing out two weeks before they had hoped, but that run and the fan base it inspired should provide plenty of optimism heading into 2012.
Best Moment of the Year
June 9 is a date that will go down in club history. The very first match at Livestrong Sporting Park may have ended as an unspectacular scoreless draw, but it marked a landmark moment in club history, as the team’s new home opened to rave reviews after years of playing in borrowed facilities. Kansas City finally had a stadium to call their own, and it was world class.
Worst Moment of the Year
Already stuck in last place and facing the prospect of waiting another month for LSP to open, Kansas City took an improbable 1-0 lead against the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center on May 14. That advantage was short-lived, however. By the time David Beckham got done putting the finishing touches on a 4-1 LA victory with a signature free kick into the top corner, Sporting were 1-5-1 and contemplating the possibility that their abysmal start might permanently cripple their playoff hopes.
Apologies to Graham Zusi, who had two absolute crackers in the running, but Kei Kamara takes the honor for his acrobatic scissor kick to open the scoring against Toronto FC at Livestrong Sporting Park on July 23. The combination of anticipation, athleticism and technical perfection make Kamara’s strike impossible to resist. Other than possibly C.J. Sapong, the Sierra Leone international is the only player on Kansas City’s roster who is capable of putting that chance away in similar fashion.
Jimmy Nielsen considers himself somewhat of an unconventional goalkeeper, so it’s no surprise Kansas City’s save of the year is distinctly different. So different, in fact, that former Seattle Sounders announcer Arlo White could barely believe his eyes on Aug. 6 when Nielsen pulled off a spectacular double-stop on Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle, punctuated by a lunging kick save with his left foot that denied Neagle a sure equalizer.
Nielsen’s steady presence as both organizer and reliable shot-stopper makes him the clear choice for Sporting MVP. Without the veteran’s timely saves, calming demeanor and ability to keep a young defense on the same page, Kansas City would have been scrambling to stay within striking distance of the playoff race let alone finishing atop the Eastern Conference.
Bravo’s contributions simply can’t be understated. Although he’s already moved on to Cruz Azul this offseason, ending his brief stint in MLS before it really built up a head of steam, the Mexican striker nearly notched double-digit goals in his single season with Sporting, many of them to save or earn points. His competitive and professional approach will also be a benchmark for others to draw upon in coming seasons.
1. Find another center back: Matt Besler and Aurélien Collin are a fine pairing in the back, but there’s little behind them in the form of depth. Veteran Shavar Thomas was a nonfactor in 2011, and has already been let go this offseason. Daneil Cyrus has potential, but the young Trinidadian was injured after arriving on loan in midseason and isn’t a guarantee to stick around. That leaves Júlio César, whom manager Peter Vermes seems to prefer in a defensive midfield role to pick up the slack in case of injury or suspension. In other words, more options are needed.
2. Learn how to close out games: Had Kansas City been able to hold onto leads in 2011, they might have been capable of mounting an unlikely, late-season push for the Supporters’ Shield. As it was, they dropped heartbreaking results in Vancouver and New England and squandered late leads against Dallas and Seattle at home, costing a minimum of 12 points.
3. Replace the leadership lost in the offseason: Vermes made it a priority to change the culture in Kansas City when he took the reins from Curt Onalfo, and two of the shining lights in that effort were Davy Arnaud and Bravo. Both of those guys have moved on; Arnaud was traded to Montreal in exchange for Seth Sinovic, and Bravo returned to Mexico. Someone has to step up to fill that leadership void, and players like Besler, Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Kamara are some of the prime candidates to do that.