TEAM: Sporting Kansas City (neé Wizards)
COACH: Peter Vermes (USA)
2010 RESULTS: 39 points, 3rd Place, Eastern Conference (missed playoffs)
Casual fans of the big-league Kansas City soccer franchise may perform a double-take when they turn on their sets and hear “Sporting KC” for the first time. Owners OnGoal, LLC, decided that a new direction would work well in concert with moving into the brand-new soccer specific stadium. The group changed their names to The Sporting Club, and then rebranded the team with a similar convention, owing tribute to Portuguese clubs based in Lisbon and Braga. They also branded the new stadium in a similar way, Livestrong Sporting Park.
So what does this all mean? Perhaps a fresh look, a new attitude, and a sparkling venue can reenergize a team that has been in the middle of the pack for the last several years. As far as the team goes, in 2010 they barely missed the playoffs, which in the Eastern Conference meant you had some holes. KC’s season started very slowly, only notching three victories in their first 14 matches. The summer was a strong stretch for the Wizards, but another losing streak in September ended any MLS Cup chances. In terms of weaknesses, their away record wasn’t great, losing twice as many as they won. In addition, in last year’s playoff format, they were battling Western Conference teams. In terms of goals scored and allowed, they fell short on both accounts, especially offensively.
ROSTER ADDITIONS: The highest profile addition is Mexican forward Omar Bravo from Chivas Guadelajara. It will be interesting to see if Bravo can resurrect his career as a goal scorer in a new setting. They also acquired Luke Sassano, in a trade with the Galaxy who selected him in the Re-Entry Draft. He will probably provide some depth options from the bench, being able to play both as a fullback as well as a midfielder.
Sporting’s draft brought in C.J. Sapong, a James Madison product who spent time in the PDL in 2010. The other notable selection was midfielder Konrad Warzycha, whose father Robert coaches the Crew.
ROSTER LOSSES: Along with the Wizards moniker, two familiar faces in Kansas City soccer will be missing in 2011. Jimmy Conrad, a Wizard since 2003, was left unsigned, and the central defender moved on to Chivas USA through the Re-Entry Draft. Jack Jewsbury, appearing in nearly as many matches as Conrad for Sporting, was traded to Portland for allocation cash. Other losses include reserve defenders Aaron Hohlbein and Jonathan Leathers, as well as forward Josh Wolff.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Vermes preferred a 4-3-3 formation throughout the 2010 season, with two attacking midfielders.
FORWARDS – Kei Kamara led the team in goals in 2010. Vermes prefers to have him start as the right winger. Bravo will certainly feature in the starting lineup, probably as the center forward. For USMNT fans, a burning question regards the status of Teal Bunbury in the lineup. He should rotate into the final starting spot this season, competing with Graham Zusi, Birahim Diop, and Ryan Smith.
MIDFIELDERS – The three-man midfield has become solidified between mainstay Davy Arnaud (second leading scorer in 2010), Stephane Auvray, and Craig Rocastle.
DEFENSE – Shavar Thomas will certainly start at central midfield, and it’s highly likely that Matt Besler will be the other halfback. A wildcard in central defense could be Julio Cesar, a Spaniard who camped with the team but has not signed yet. If he is signed, he will likely push Thomas or Besler to the bench. Michael Harrington and Roger Espinoza have been the regular right and left backs, respectively.
GOALKEEPER – Jimmy Nielsen will start at goalkeeper.
KEY PLAYER – Davy Arnaud continues to be one of the primary cogs in KC’s attack. He is the distribution point from the midfield, and is also great at supporting in runs from his position. He scored 7 goals last year, and will need to be just as influential in the offense for Kansas City to succeed.
PLAYER TO WATCH – Bunbury is a rising star, and the biggest concern for Sporting fans may be his value to European teams come summer. He was on trial with Stoke City during the offseason, but there is no doubt he is a rising star in United States soccer, and his development will be followed by soccer fans throughout the country.
2011 OUTLOOK – In terms of playoff organization, Sporting KC was hurt most by the MLS Playoff system in 2010. If three Eastern Conference teams were mandated in the MLS Cup playoffs, as will be the case this season, they would have qualified. In a weak conference, KC should finish no worse than last season. If Bravo and Bunbury can upgrade the offense over Zusi and Diop up front, they could push on into the second seed.
EARL’S PREDICTION – 2nd Eastern Conference, Conference Finalist