How do you top that? Thatís the question facing Sporting Kansas City this offseason after a 2011 season marked by the reinvention of the clubís fortunes on and off the field.
Despite starting the year with a brutal, 10-game road trip that saw the club slump to the bottom of the league table with a 1-6-3 record, Sporting staged an incredible turnaround after moving into their sparkling new home, Livestrong Sporting Park. Over the course of a summer defined by packed houses and wild finishes, Kansas City roared back up the table, eventually finishing atop the Eastern Conference with 51 points (13-9-12).
Though they eventually lost 2-0 to the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference Championship, SKC enjoyed what will go down as a wildly successful season from both a competitive and organizational standpoint in their first full year following rebranding.
MLSsoccer.com spoke to manager Peter Vermes about Sportingís accomplishments in 2011 and what lies ahead.
MLSsoccer.com: After having a chance to reflect on the season, how would you evaluate the job you did this year?
Vermes: In the vision of the rebranding and what we wanted to achieve on the field going into the opening of the new stadium, we definitely exceeded expectations. I believe we provided a good product on the field, which in turn was very well supported by our fan base. We captured a lot of new people. Our fan base has turned more into a cult following, which is fantastic.
We definitely got closer on the field to the style of play that we would like to exhibit week in and week out. Also, as the season went on, the performances became extremely consistent. That was another huge goal of ours. Those things ended up being very exciting.
MLSsoccer.com: What will it take to get to that preferred style of play week in and week out?
Vermes: I still think we have to give up fewer goals. I also think we have to be able to finish better because we do create quite a few opportunities. Weíve got to be more efficient. Thatís going to be a strong push for us in the preseason to make sure we get better in those areas.
As far as signings go, I canít tell you that we need to get guys at this position or that position. We need to improve our roster from the bottom up to continue to push the guys that are on the top end. We need to really push those guys so the environment stays competitive.
MLSsoccer.com: A theme throughout the season was the emergence of young guys like Matt Besler, Chance Myers and Graham Zusi. Did any of those playersí breakouts really stick out to you?
Vermes: You probably have to say Zusi and Chance. Besler had been playing already quite a bit. Those two guys had not been. When you look at those two players, Iím happy for them and Iím happy for the organization. People donít realize this but, obviously, we invested a lot in Chance being the No. 1 pick [in the 2008 SuperDraft]. If you go back the last couple years, we have protected Zusi in Expansion Drafts. We believed in them. I am glad those guys have blossomed like they have. Obviously, they have a long way to go as well.
MLSsoccer.com: Do you have any other candidates in the squad that might be ready to make a similar jump?
Vermes: I think Kevin Ellis [might be]. He still has a ways to go, donít get me wrong, but I think he is a kid I could see taking some strides in 2012. He grew up a lot this year. It was the first time heís spent a year with a professional team. Heís had to go through 10 months of full-time soccer, which heís never done before in this intensity and environment.
He started to get some consistency in his training and also really understand his position on the field. I could see that rolling over into next year and really giving him a step up. That doesnít mean heís a starter, though, to be clear. Heís still a Home Grown guy who just finished his first year in a professional environment.
MLSsoccer.com: This season was just your second full year as a manager in MLS. What do you think you learned?
Vermes: I think some things just got cemented for me. I believed in a lot of the guys who are here. I think a lot of those guys proved me correct. Iíve said this before, but [this season reinforced] sticking to your guns and staying resolute in what you believe in. Also, just going with your gut. There were a lot of situations where I went with my gut, and they came to fruition. Those are places where Iíve maybe become more confident.
MLSsoccer.com: Youíve talked a lot about changing the team culture. How do you think that aspect of building the squad has turned out?
Vermes: We have a great staff, and we have a great organization. There was no doubt that the culture was the most important thing to change around the team. I think thatís really helped us grow this year. That part is something that I realize Ė even as much importance as I gave it Ė just how important it is to overall team performance and success. Itís helped me cement a bunch of things in my mind that are important. Some of them are even more important than I thought. Thatís a good thing going forward.