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.”