Name: Sporting Kansas City
Coach: Peter Vermes
Last Year: 13-9-12 51 Pts 1st Eastern Conference, 4th Overall
The opening of Livestrong Sporting Park last year was another wonderful moment in the history of Major League Soccer. At the same time, it was a wonderful moment for those on either side of the Kansas/Missouri border that splits the Kansas City metropolitan area right down the middle.
The club, rebranded from the Kansas City Wizards before the 2011 season, experienced a full house for every single home game at their new stadium. They also hosted a fantastic, sold-out crowd during the CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage. This group delivered in front of their own supporters and now the question comes up for 2012 – can they improve and make their home a fortress?
Coaching Staff: Peter Vermes was able to push the right buttons to get this side deep into the playoffs. There were members of The Cauldron including Down The Byline blogger Mike Kuhn screaming for his dismissal, but everything worked out well for Vermes and the team, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.
Additions: Bobby Convey comes over from the San Jose Earthquakes to bolster the speed in midfield and add some grit. Paulo Nagamura was brought over from Chivas USA to bring some bite and be a pest. Jacob Peterson, who split his time with the San Jose Earthquakes & Toronto FC should fit into Vermes’ systems.
Subtractions: Omar Bravo, who looked strong and played well last season, returned home to Mexico. He felt that he needed to go back, but never looked out of place for Sporting KC. The changes that were made should make up for the loss of Bravo.
Long time KC player Davy Arnaud was traded to expansion side Montreal Impact in order to reacquire left back Seth Sinovic, who the Impact selected in the Expansion Draft.
Starting Lineup: The Danish keeper Jimmy Nielsen will man the net for this side as he had a solid 2011. His accidental handling of the ball outside of his area in Livestrong’s opening match will be an enduring memory, but Nielsen has been one of the most consistent keepers in the league.
The center of the backline will consist of Frenchman Aurelien Collin, as well as first-time All Star selection Matt Besler. Sinovic should regain his left back slot, while Chance Myers will again start on the right. Michael Harrington and Julio Cesar will provide cover for the backline. This should be a solid defensive group that will keep the ball away from their net.
The midfield is loaded with Convey, Nagamura, Peterson and Graham Zusi, who looked to breakout with the National Team in January and scored his first goal. Watch out once again for set pieces, with Zusi launching balls deep from the midfield and beating opposing keepers.
The strikers look to be Teal Bunbury with Kei Kamara up top. But if there is an injury to either one, then Zusi can fill in nicely. Expect reigning Rookie Of The Year C.J. Sapong to come off the bench to add more speed and depth.
Player to Watch: Zusi can only go up after a good 2011. He is so dangerous on the field during set pieces and attacking with the ball. He could be the next candidate to make a move to Europe he if wishes, but right now he belongs to Kansas City and should stay.
Best Case Scenario: This team can improve from last year and reach the MLS Cup final. What started as a question mark last year, with the possibility of Vermes being sacked, has quickly turned into a success story. Now expectations are running high at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Worst Case Scenario: If the injury bug bites them hard, we shall see the strength of their depth, and hopefully a mental let-down will not drag into a profound losing streak.
Prediction: While the East has improved, it looks to me that Sporting Kansas City will take the top spot. If everything works the way it should for them, a long playoff run and hosting the final is not out of the question.