Sporting Kansas City-Union Preview

Last season was a success for Sporting Kansas City by almost any
measure.

The club won the U.S. Open Cup, its first trophy of any kind
since 2004. It won the regular-season Eastern Conference title for
the second straight year. It was so successful that two of its top
players were sought by clubs in the English Premier League.

All of which made the way things ended sting all the more.

With the second-best record in the league at 18-7-9, Sporting KC
carried a No. 1 seed into its matchup with Houston in the MLS Cup
playoffs. After a 2-0 loss in the first leg of the two-game
aggregate-goal series, though, a 1-0 victory in the return wasn’t
enough to stave off elimination.

“We all remember the Houston games in the playoffs. It’s not how
we wanted to end the season,” defender Matt Besler said. “But all
of us, we took a step back from it, and we realized we’re starting
a new season. It’s time for us to get in position to go after it
again.”

That quest begins Saturday when Sporting KC opens its season at
Philadelphia.

The roster that the club will be fielding, at least early on,
has some noticeable changes.

Midfielder Roger Espinoza is gone on a transfer to Premier
League club Wigan Athletic, and leading goal scorer Kei Kamara is
on loan to Norwich until May, at which point that Premier League
club can decide whether to make the move permanent.

That’s not exactly the way to start off retooling a team that
struggled to score last season.

But manager Peter Vermes is confident that the moves Sporting KC
made during the offseason will be enough to help absorb the loss of
two key players.

“As we have success, our players are going to be sought,” Vermes
said. “We have to be prepared for that, and I think we’ve made some
good additions.”

Vermes traded with New England for U.S. international Benny
Feilhaber, helping to fill the void left by Espinoza in the
midfield. He also acquired Argentine striker Claudio Bieler as one
of the club’s designated players, giving Sporting KC a dangerous
goal scorer to help fill in for the production that Kamara took
with him across the Atlantic Ocean.

Bieler spent last season with LDU Quito in Ecuador’s top league,
scoring 20 goals in 36 games.

“Claudio adds another attacking person to our team,” Vermes
said. “I think Ike Opara was a great pickup for us, adding depth to
the central part of the defense. He has a huge ceiling. And Josh
Gardner is another guy who should be able to help us defensively on
the left side.”

Defense hasn’t been much of a problem for Sporting KC, though.
The club allowed 27 goals last season, by far the fewest in the
league, and opens against a Union squad that scored 37 times in
2012.

After reaching the playoffs in its second season, Philadelphia
struggled last year, going 10-18-6 and finishing eighth out of 10
teams in the East.

Philadelphia hopes to see major improvement offensively with the
return of Sebastien Le Toux, who totaled 25 goals for the Union in
2010 and 2011 but was traded to Vancouver last year. After being
traded once again to New York, Le Toux was then sent to
Philadelphia in the offseason.

The Union also picked up Conor Casey, a proven scorer with 50
goals in 121 career MLS matches, as well as defender Jeff Parke.
Having a veteran presence in front of young goalkeeper Zac MacMath
will be crucial if the Union harbor playoff aspirations for the
second time in four years.

“I think we made a lot of good changes and obviously I was very
excited to come back here,” Le Toux told the Union’s official
website. “This is a club that made the playoffs two years ago. Last
year was tough and everything went the wrong way. There were no
breaks. I like the changes made for this season and I’m very
excited about the potential of this club.”

Philadelphia has allowed a total of one goal in going 1-0-2
all-time at home against Sporting KC.