By VINCE MADURI
Sporting Kansas City took another step forward in 2012 following a massive club breakthrough the previous year, winning the U.S. Open Cup and finished only three points behind San Jose for the Supporters’ Shield.
The black eye on Sporting KC’s season, however, was an early playoff exit from the Eastern Conference playoffs, and yet another playoff loss to the Houston Dynamo.
There is still plenty of reason for optimisim heading into 2013. Graham Zusi has emerged as a world-beater for his club and a solid player for his country. Matt Besler won the MLS Defender of the Year award. Jimmy Nielsen added a Goalkeeper of the Year honor to the team’s award haul, and Sporting KC sat atop the Eastern Conference regular season for the second straight year.
There is cause for concern though. Kansas City will enter the new year with significant turnover as both Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara have left for the English Premier League, although it must be noted Kamara has the option to return to Sporting following the end of his loan once the EPL season ends in May (though his strong start for Norwich City seems to bode well for the likelihood that he stays in England).
Sporting KC didn’t stand pat though. Peter Vermes’ side made several key additions in the off-season, led by Argentine forward Claudio Bieler, U.S. National Team midfielder Benny Feilhaber and defender Ike Opara. With Teal Bunbury returning from a torn ACL, and Spanish midfielder Oriol Rosell poised for a larger role, Sporting KC has the pieces in place to take another step forward in 2013.
Here is a closer look at Sporting Kansas City heading into 2013 MLS season:
SPORTING KANSAS CITY SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 18-7-9, 63 points (first in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M Benny Feilhaber, F Claudio Bieler, M Mikey Lopez, D Ike Opara, D Josh Gardner, D Yann Songo’o
KEY LOSSES: M Roger Espinoza, F Kei Kamara, M Julio Cesar, D Michael Harrington, M Luke Sassano, D Korede Aiyegbuse, D/M Konrad Warzycha, D Neven Markovic, D Cyprian Hedrick
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Benny Feilhaber – There was a time when Feilhaber was the next big thing for the U.S. Men’s National Team. He has struggled to live up to the lofty expectations of the early part of his career, but the midfielder has entered the perfect situation in Kansas City. Everything seems set up for Feilhaber to have a career renaissance.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: Claudio Bieler – The Argentine forward was acquired this winter with one task: being the reliable goal-scorer the team has lacked. Being the only DP on this roster, if Bieler doesn’t deliver on that then he could find himself on the bench in favor of the likes of C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury.
If Kei Kamara does not return to Kansas City at the end of May, the team will be losing its leading scorer from the past three years running, a hefty loss for a team that only managed to score 42 goals last season (12th in MLS and second worst among playoff teams). On the bright side, if Kamara does play well enough to merit a transfer to Norwich City, it will give Sporting KC the resources to make some big player moves this summer.
Primarily two players were brought in to help Graham Zusi stimulate the attack: new DP striker Claudio Bieler and U.S. National Team midfielder Benny Feilhaber.
Bieler, 28-years-old, scored 20 goals in 34 games for Ecuadorian side LDU Quito last season which was good for second in the league. The Argentine is a true center forward and will be asked to carry a large chunk of the team’s scoring burden.
“Zusi can play all five positions, and I’m talking about the three up top and the two attacking midfielders,” head coach Peter Vermes said following a preseason game in Orlando. “Benny [Feilhaber] could play four of them. He could play wide or he could play the two underneath. So, that interchange between [Zusi and Feilhaber], I don’t know there might be times when there are two attacking mids together. There’s just a lot of different combinations we could do. But I like Zusi out wide at times because he gives us another player on the offensive line that can hold the ball and create from there. I like that part of it. And Claudio [Bieler] gives us a lot of things that we haven’t had in the past. He’s someone we can play through and he’s very good on the one-two’s and the combination play around the top of the box.”
Benny Feilhaber and Peter Vermes spent time together in 2005 when Vermes was an assistant with the U.S. under-20’s and both seem very excited to be working with one another again.
“I want to come in and try to create opportunities for players ahead of me and create opportunities for myself,” Feilhaber told SBI. “[Vermes] wants me to score goals and assist on goals. That’s what I’m here for. We want to score more goals than last year. That was one of the things the team wanted more of. So hopefully I’m going to be able to do that.”
“Kansas City was my number one choice in the offseason. I wanted to go to a club that had been successful in the past. Sporting are a top club in how well organized they are and how they take things professionally. I knew that this was a great place to be.”
As for replacing Espinoza’s work rate in midfield, Vermes thinks Feilhaber can help with that as well.
“There has always been a perception where people have a misconception of [Feilhaber],” Vermes said. “I think Benny actually has a lot of bite in the midfield. People don’t think he defends well enough but I actually see it a little bit differently. I think that in the way that we play, he can have a very strong impact for us on the [defensive] side of the ball.”
The midfield is otherwise extremely deep with solid players in Paulo Nagamura, Oriol Rosell, Peterson Joseph and first round pick GA prospect Mikey Lopez. While the forwards have some flexibility too as Bobby Convey could have a comeback year judging from the way he has performed in the preseason, C.J. Sapong scored nine goals over 31 appearances last season and is entering his prime at 24 years old and eventually Teal Bunbury will be back from a knee injury which ended the 22-year-old’s season prematurely just as he seemed to be hitting a stride.
The defensive setup will be the same starters who led the league with only 27 goals conceded. Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin will start in the center of defense while Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic should occupy the full back roles for the majority of the season barring health issues, while Jimmy Nielsen is between the pipes, marshaling the group.
The depth in defense will look a little different after the departure of Michael Harrington to Portland and the acquisitions of Ike Opara from San Jose and Josh Gardner from Montreal.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP