Sporting KC out to capture elusive MLS Cup title

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

The MLS 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, 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,” said defender Matt Besler. ”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 from the group of young and hungry
players who achieved such success last season.

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. And besides, it’s not as though he can hold a
grudge against a couple of players who are attempting to fulfill
their goals.

”Kei is a perfect example,” Vermes said. ”I know he loves
playing here, and at the same time, he has ambitions to play in the
EPL. … I’d love to have him for the start of the season, but I
think it gives him a chance to see what his dream is like in
reality.

”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, who turned 29 on Friday, has generated a particular buzz
in Kansas City. He spent last season with LDU Quito in Ecuador’s
top league, scoring 20 goals in just 36 games.

”Claudio adds another attacking person to our team,” Vermes
said. ”I think Ike Opara was a great pick up 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.”

Opara arrived in a trade with San Jose, while Gardner came over
from Montreal.

Defense hasn’t been much of a problem for Sporting KC, though.
The club allowed just 27 goals last season, by far the best in the
league. Jimmy Nielsen was the MLS goalkeeper of the year, Besler
was defender of the year and fellow defender Aurelien Collin was a
Best XI selection.

”I’m a firm believer that the defense is your most important
part, and it’s not just the defender and Jimmy. It’s the whole
team,” Besler said. ”The last couple years we’ve really done a
great job of defending as a team. I certainly see that as the case
this year.”

Sporting KC’s spruced up depth should help it navigate a brutal
grind that includes not only its pursuit of the MLS Cup title –
something it hasn’t won since 2000 – but also the defense of the
U.S. Open Cup and its new inclusion in the CONCACAF Champions
League.

And make no mistake: The club wants to be competitive in all
three competitions.

”It’s quite the schedule we have, but I think you’ll really see
our depth shine through this year,” said midfielder Graham Zusi,
who led the league with 15 assists last season.

”I think you’ll see guys who were not necessarily getting a lot
of minutes in regular games come through,” Zusi said, ”and really
show their ability.”

Still, the one trophy that stands above the rest is the MLS Cup,
and Zusi said that loss to Houston to end last season still stings.
He said that Sporting KC wasn’t necessarily in search of additional
motivation this offseason, but ruing that upset loss provided it
anyway.

”We set a goal at the beginning of the season, and twice we’ve
fallen short,” he said. ”We’re taking each of those times as
learning experiences. I think if we’re put in that situation again,
we’re thinking that you’ll see a different outcome this time.”