Sporting Kansas City relished the aftermath of the club’s second MLS Cup title for a few fleeting moments. The gritty triumph over Real Salt Lake on penalty kicks deserved its due: it marked the apex of the club’s revitalization to date, a validation of all the toil required to reach that point.
Revelry lasts only so long with work still to do, though. There are more objectives to satisfy during the busy year ahead.
“We certainly took time to appreciate what we did accomplish, but pretty quickly, we were focused on what we needed to do to repeat,” Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi said recently.
Sporting manager Peter Vermes opted to maintain the status quo during the winter to protect the foundation of the side. Ten of the 11 starters from MLS Cup – all but retired goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen – return in 2014. Most of the key reserves are back for another run, too.
The continued reliance on a core of players cultivated over the past few years breeds the coherency and the consistency required to mount challenges in domestic and international competitions. It doesn’t happen often in MLS. Few clubs reach this stage given the inevitable churn necessary to operate within the salary budget system. Two of them took the field at Sporting Park last December.
Sporting Kansas City carefully constructed the core of its team over the past few years. Those efforts have placed Sporting in a position to challenge for domestic and international honors over the next couple of years.
Sporting made sacrifices along the way – Kei Kamara’s loan to Norwich City and subsequent permanent transfer to Middlesbrough last year, for example – to retain the majority of its key components for the short- and medium-term. Those moves were painful at the time, but they placed Sporting in a position to excel during the regular season, lift MLS Cup last year and then push onward in search of more titles. Consider this settled, well-drilled unit as the culmination of a construction process years in the making.
“We have a great chance with the core group that we have to do it for the next three or four years,” Sporting defender Matt Besler said. “Everyone needs to approach it and make sure we take advantage of the opportunity.”
The importance of avoiding the usual pitfalls created by a crowded fixture list and the occasionally painful championship hangover isn’t lost on this group. Several players stuck around Kansas City during the offseason to continue their workouts and focus on the task at hand heading into next season. Zusi credits those efforts to the mentality fostered by Vermes and instilled throughout the club over the past few seasons.
“I think Peter has built that – I don’t think it’s just something that came about with the players,” Zusi said. “But he’s built something, that mentality of being the best, expecting excellence from not only players, but staff, coaches, ticket sales people. It’s unspoken, but it’s that kind of mentality that goes from top to bottom.”
Sporting Kansas City expects to celebrate a few more of these moments over the next few years.
Sporting – from its engaged investor/operators all the way down the line – craves more success. It isn’t enough to win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 2012 and MLS Cup a year later. There are grander aspirations and expectations on the whiteboard after rebuilding the club from scratch after the Sporting Club takeover and tasting success on home soil twice in two years.
Achieving those goals requires complete commitment to the cause. Besler, Zusi and Benny Feilhaber cannot allow their World Cup dreams to distract from the tasks at hand. The group as a whole cannot permit its incessant pressure to drop or shirk its responsibilities off the field with two CONCACAF Champions League campaigns (including the enticing quarterfinal tie against Liga MX leaders Cruz Azul next month) in addition to the usual league and Open Cup commitments. The margin for error is modest at best given the commitments in hand and the mandates on the board.
“I would say any time you win the trophy, it’s a successful season,” Besler said. “This year, I hope we can win a trophy. What that trophy is, I don’t know. I know the biggest one would probably be the Champions League. We’re close. We’re in the quarterfinals. We’re right there. No MLS team has done it. That’s going to be the first one we’re focused on.”
It won’t be the only one, either. The time for basking in the glow of accomplishment passed long ago. It is once again onto the next achievement and the next milestone for a club striving for something more in the months and the years ahead.