By TATE STEINLAGE
Sporting Kansas City closed the chapter on one of Major League Soccer’s greatest revivals last season, winning the club’s second-ever MLS Cup after falling short the previous two years.
That’s in the rearview mirror now, though.
Sporting KC face their busiest year in franchise history in 2014. The season kicks off Saturday in Seattle, Wash. against the Sounders, and then continues four days later in the CONCACAF Champions League knockout round against Liga MX leader Cruz Azul.
That first-week schedule is a good example of the tests that face the defending champions moving forward. The year will be a balance of MLS regular season play and the other major fixtures the team is set to participate in — not including the World Cup this summer.
But don’t assume there aren’t reasons to be optimistic for another impressive run in 2014. Sporting KC field a roster that accounted for 95 percent of the team’s minutes logged last season in MLS action, including 10 of the 11 MLS Cup starters and a back four that have led MLS defensively two years straight.
That little turnover will likely play a key factor in Sporting KC’s chase at third-straight year with at least one piece of silverware. And with several opportunities for titles, the Sporting KC faithful should be biting at the bit for the season to kickoff.
Here’s a closer look at Sporting KC heading into the regular season:
SPORTING KANSAS CITY PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: MLS Cup champions; 17-10-7, 58 points (second in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Sal Zizzo (traded from Portland Timbers), GK Andy Gruenebaum (traded from Columbus Crew)
KEY LOSSES: GK Jimmy Nielsen (retired), F Teal Bunbury (traded to New England Revolution), M Kyle Miller (waived), D Brendan Ruiz (waived), D Federico Bessone (out of contract)
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Sal Zizzo — Sporting KC and manager Peter Vermes have had a knack for bringing in under-the-radar-type talent in recent years, and they’re hoping Sal Zizzo will continue that trend. The 26-year-old had just two goals in 60 appearances for the Portland Timbers in three years. However, Zizzo’s speed and versatility at the wing position should help him fit nicely in Sporting KC’s attack-minded system.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: Claudio Bieler — It was a tale of two seasons for Bieler last year. After netting six goals in the club’s first 10 matches, the Argentine went cold with the return of forward Kei Kamara. But even after Kamara’s departure to England in September, Bieler was unable to return to form, suffering mightily with a groin-strain that put him on the bench for several games.
The team’s only designated-player has added pressure as well after showcasing excellently in preseason, scoring five goals and adding six assists. According to Vermes, Bieler is in the best shape he’s been in since coming to Kansas City. Add that with the fact that Bieler now has a year of MLS play under his belt, and the forward should be set for a redemptive-esque year.
If Sporting KC need any one player to step up in 2014, it’s forward Claudio Bieler. The Argentine was the epitome of Katy Perry’s hit single “Hot N Cold” last season; either scoring like crazy or practically disappearing altogether.
But without the chance of Kamara returning like last year, Bieler will be targeted as the DP he was brought in to be. His play will set the tone for the long list of forwards that manager Peter Vermes call critical for the team’s success.
“He’s been in form and has played very well,” Vermes said Saturday about Bieler. “I would say that a lot of guys have done well over the course of preseason. Dom (Dwyer) has done well; different guys have played well. C.J. suffered an injury against Fluminense unfortunately which knocked him out again today. All those guys are going to be important. The roster is going to be important. We have a lot of games coming up in a short period of time, and that’s what we are really going to have to get prepared for.”
Of course, there is a question mark at goalkeeper. Losing a veteran and two-time captain like Jimmy Nielsen does present a challenge. However, Eric Kronberg is the longest-tenured player on the roster, dating back to the days of the Kansas City Wizards. In short, he’s familiar with the system and expectations that come with it.
“I think Jimmy (Nielsen) was a good mentor for (Eric) Kronberg,” Vermes said. “Kronberg, because he is younger, is a lot more athletic than Jimmy was. Jimmy was excellent at leading the game, and he was very good at his positioning. He came up with big saves because he made himself big a lot. Kronberg can do the same, but he’s very quick and is excellent at arial duels. He’s done a tremendous job of getting us on the attack, especially when he wins balls because he has great distribution from his arm.”
Kronberg and newly-acquired goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum also have the benefit of playing behind the league’s best back four. That group got stronger in 2013 too thanks to the play of defender Ike Opara. Similar to Aurelien Collin, Opara is an arial expert and can be a threat on set pieces in the box offensively. With Matt Besler’s inevitable absence for the World Cup, Opara should help the back line not miss a beat.
If there are any possible weaknesses in this Sporting KC roster, it’s at the midfield position, and it’s because of injury. Both Oriol Rosell and Paulo Nagamura battled injuries last year, and 23-year-old Haitian Peterson Joseph is still dealing with an unknown illness that’s kept him out of action for more than five months now.
However, when Rosell, Nagamura, and second-year midfielder Benny Feilhaber are in the lineup, it’s the most harassing trio in the league. But in fear of injury, don’t be surprised to see Sporting KC acquire a midfielder sometime during the season, especially via allocation money gained by the Kamara and Bunbury deals.
With the amount of matches on their plate, expect to see a ton of faces at every position this year. And if Vermes is able to continually strike a chord with differing lineups, Sporting KC should have little trouble replicating another positive season.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP