Inside MLS season preview: Sporting Kansas City
Last year in a nutshell: Sporting Kansas City fulfilled its potential by winning MLS Cup on home soil.
(as of March 4)
Incoming: GK: Andy Gruenebaum (Columbus); MF: Alex Martinez (N.C. State), Sal Zizzo (Portland)
Outgoing: GK: Jimmy Nielsen (retired); DF: Kyle Miller (Oklahoma City Energy), Brendan Ruiz (unattached); FW: Teal Bunbury (New England)
Key Player: The high-pressing, 4-3-3 setup cultivated over the past few years works best when Graham Zusi creates most of the magic in the final third. Zusi presents a variety of dangers to opposing defenses with his roving quest to obtain possession and serve intelligent and threatening balls into the penalty area. He allies considerable work rate with ingenuity and precision, a necessary combination to make this system thrive. His flexibility – he can play either in the midfield three or on the right side of the front three – provides the dexterity required to adapt to situations and ensure Sporting makes the proper use of his considerable powers.
Strengths: Sporting grasps the intricacies of its composition, identity and style and uses that familiarity to produce consistent results. Most of the success starts with the relentless high pressure. By harrying the opposition in advanced areas, Sporting obtains possession in dangerous spots and proceeds directly to goal. The mixture of attacking pieces – Zusi as the primary schemer, Claudio Bieler as the primary poacher, Dom Dwyer as a relentless alternative, Soony Saad as a promising alternative, C.J. Sapong as a more direct option – provides a variety of methods to breach the opposition. The midfield trio of Benny Feilhaber, Paulo Nagamura and Uri Rosell scampers around to close down space and locates good spots to retain possession once the ball is acquired. Rosell functions as a critical piece in those efforts, a metronomic player capable of facilitating the play from a deep-lying position and finding the creative Feilhaber as the U.S. international drags around his marker and surges through midfield. Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic both earned callups to the U.S. national team in January for their ability to join the play and provide width from the fullback area. Matt Besler and Aurélien Collin form the league's preeminent central defensive paring. Besler controls the proceedings with his astute positioning, while Collin's physical presence blunts opposing forwards and offers a vital component when Sporting pushes forward on set pieces. Sporting manager Peter Vermes consistently places his team in a position to win by cobbling together viable reserve options, focusing on his side's strengths and planning for the future with his personnel moves.
Weaknesses: The departure of Jimmy Nielsen injects some uncertainty into the stable and resolute defensive core. Nielsen functioned as an auxiliary coach and a guiding presence from his position between the sticks. Eric Kronberg and Andy Gruenebaum face a considerable task to replace his contributions to the team. Myers and Sinovic occasionally leave Sporting exposed on the counter with their desire to venture into the opposing half, though the midfield generally avoids losing the ball in bad spots to facilitate those swift moves. If Zusi isn't particularly influential in a game, then Sporting lacks a bit of craft in its approach play and sometimes struggles to grind out goals even while dominating the proceedings. Ruthlessness in the final third remains elusive at points for a team more than willing to fire on goal from a variety of different angles.
PROSPECTS FOR 2014
● Can Bieler cement his place as the number nine?: Bieler finished as top scorer last season, but he spent the waning stages of the campaign fighting for playing time after returning from injury. He remains a critical piece of Sporting's success moving forward given his predatory instincts in the final third. He spent much of the offseason working on his fitness to ensure he can shoulder the expected duties off the ball. If he fulfills those basic commitments and seals a regular spot in the side, then the team as a whole should benefit.
● Is Kronberg the answer in goal?: The longest-tenured player in the side spent eight years as a reserve before stepping into the spotlight upon Nielsen's retirement. His ability isn't in question, but he must still prove he possesses the command and the consistency to function as a number one over the short- and long-term. Former Columbus starter Gruenebaum offers a viable alternative if Kronberg proves unconvincing.
● How much will the World Cup impact the core of the side?: Besler and Zusi both expect to make the journey to Brazil with the United States. Most teams will muddle through similar concerns, but the issues here are particularly acute given the physical demands placed upon this side on a regular basis. Vermes must manage the situation astutely to ensure his captain and his creative fulcrum process the demands without expending crucial energy necessary to navigate through a busy second half involving regular season, CONCACAF Champions League and postseason commitments.
Best case scenario: Sporting builds upon its MLS Cup triumph by making a deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League during March and April and then uses that momentum to fuel its title defense. Those efforts produce a second consecutive championship and prompt discusses about Sporting's place in history.
Worst case scenario: The busy fixture list and the external demands placed upon several players exacts a toll Sporting cannot pay. Sporting continues to churn out results during the regular season, but the efforts to retain MLS Cup fall short in the postseason.
2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS