Sporting KC began the 2011 season on March 19, defeating Chivas USA 3-2 at the Home Depot Center. Nine away matches later, the club opened their new state-of-the-art stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park, playing out a nil-nil draw with the Chicago Fire.
It wasn’t until June 12 that Sporting secured their second win of the season, thrashing FC Dallas 4-1. The club followed up their win in Dallas with a 10-game unbeaten streak and went from the bottom of the league to the top half.
Sporting only lost twice more during the MLS season, and without their brutal 10-game road trip to begin the season, placed upon them by their own front office, they may have put more distance between themselves and the rest of MLS’s Eastern Conference. In the end only three points separated Sporting and Philadelphia Union, who led most of the way. Unfortunately, Sporting went out of the MLS Cup play-offs with a whimper as they were defeated by Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference Final.
Like 2011, Sporting will play their first match of 2012 on the road; however, they will not spend the next two months playing away from Kansas City. The club will return to Livestrong, and supporters will hope the club can once again turn it into a fortress.
Sporting manager Peter Vermes has strengthened his squad in some areas during the MLS offseason while jettisoning others. Sporting traded for MLS veterans Paulo Nagamura and Bobby Convey in November and added two players that not only have extensive MLS experience, but have also played outside the USA; Nagamura in his native Brazil, England and Mexico, Convey with Reading.
Nagamura brings leadership, and as a tough tackler will bring a bite and defensive mentality that was lacking in the midfield. Meanwhile, Convey has been signed to play on the left side of the front three, though he can play at left back or in the midfield if needed, and will be tasked with filling the void left by Omar Bravo. Though Convey isn’t a like for like replacement, he should be an adequate addition despite only scoring three goals in 75 appearances for San Jose Earthquakes. In three seasons with the ‘Quakes Convey added 11-assists, a stat he will need to improve on in Kansas City.
Last season was a breakout year for right sided midfielder Graham Zusi, scoring five goals and tallying three assists, and Convey should ease the creative pressure on Zusi, allowing him more freedom in the midfield.
Sporting now has two players that can challenge the opposing full-backs and get crosses into the box. Zusi and Convey’s service could dictate how prolific Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong are in 2012.
While the club has lost Mexican international Bravo, who provided nine goals and one assist las t season, the club still boasts one of the most exciting forward lines in MLS. Though the argument can be made that Bunbury didn’t live up to expectations last year, being out played for large parts of the season by fellow striker C.J. Sapong. He still finished with 11 goals in 32 league games; meanwhile, striker Kei Kamara chipped in nine, Sapong with six.
Youngster Soony Saad signed midway through last season and only featured in four games. The 19-year old could get plenty of game time if Vermes isn’t able to bring in another back-up to Bunbury and Sapong.
The club will return a backline that played together for most of last season. Sporting kept 10-clean sheets in the regular season and after April didn’t allow more than two goals in a single game. The anchor of that defense was Aurelien Colin, who gave the back four a presence it had lacked.
Right back Chance Myers emerged as the club’s first choice, after many had written him off as another Super Draft bust. Myers played three seasons in and out of the line-up, but has found a home in the team after being converted to full-back. Vermes now looks like a draft genius with the selections of Myers, Bunbury and Sapong.
Jacob Peterson has also arrived from San Jose to give the squad depth as several old faces have been traded or cut from the roster. Craig Rocastle, Shavar Thomas, Milos Stojcev, Ryan Smith and Bravo have been moved on. Meanwhile, the club waived designated player Jeferson after only nine appearances and one assist.
Sporting is current one of eight MLS sides without a DP, something that has alarmed supporters, though of their two DPs last season only one made a considerable contribution.
Sporting must be credited with the brave and positive decisions to cut ties with three long standing Kansas City players over the past two seasons. Jack Jewsbury and former captain Jimmy Conrad were allowed to leave a year ago and former captain Davy Arnaud this off-season.
All three had been long serving players that many in the Caldron held in high regard. Though in Conrad‘s case he didn‘t have the foot speed or defensive capabilities to cope with strikers any longer, and although Jewsbury is still an excellent player it was time to bring in some fresh blood. Arnaud on the other hand was a financial move. The 31-year old made $250,000 last season appearing in 25-matches.
Hopes will be high that the club can emulate last season‘s success, at least from June to October. It is realistic Sporting will repeat as champions of the east, but when it comes to MLS, the play-offs are another story.
Follow Drew Farmer on Twitter @Calciofarmer