Setting the Scene
Sporting Kansas City are looking to continue their late-season surge from 2011, when they started awfully away from home but then came on late to finish atop the Eastern Conference and come within one game of their first MLS Cup appearance since 2004. This time, they won’t have to wait until midseason to play in the still-shiny Livestrong Sporting Park – but the most telling (and positive) sign is that with the exception of left winger Bobby Convey, the offseason acquisitions were designed to provide depth, not to fill glaring vacancies.
The goal-scoring power should be there even after the departure of Omar Bravo, with 2011 Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong among a talented – and crowded – group of forwards. Sapong, forward Teal Bunbury and midfielder Graham Zusi all got national team call-ups during the offseason, with Zusi earning his first two career starts and scoring his second time out. If there is a question mark, it’s the issue of depth in the young backline.
Team president Robb Heineman has declared that anything short of an MLS Cup appearance will not be considered successful, so the pressure is on to live up to Sporting’s considerable potential.
In and Out
IN: D Seth Sinovic (11/28: trade from Montreal); M Paulo Nagamura (11/29: trade from Chivas USA); M/D Bobby Convey (12/2: trade from San Jose); F Dom Dwyer (1/12: SuperDraft); D Cyprian Hedrik (1/12: SuperDraft); M Michael Thomas (1/18: Ljungskile SK/Sweden); F Jacob Peterson (1/19: free/San Jose Earthquakes)
OUT: M Davy Arnaud (11/28: trade to Montreal); M Jéferson (11/23: waived); D Scott Lorenz (11/23: waived); M Craig Rocastle (11/23: waived); D Seth Sinovic (11/23: expansion draft) M Milos Stojcev (11/23: waived); F Omar Bravo (12/12: Cruz Azul/Mexico); D Shavar Thomas (12/12: option declined); M Daneil Cyrus (1/22: waived)
Star Attraction: Kei Kamara
Kamara becomes leader in KC
Kamara didn’t want to come to Kansas City when Houston traded him to the then-Wizards in September 2009 for Abe Thompson (Remember him? No? Exactly.) and allocation money. How things have changed since then for the Sierra Leone international. The forward is a fixture with his national team, a star for his club side and a big reason why Sporting expects to be in the MLS Cup final this year.
Kamara’s flair and creativity in the attacking area don’t extend simply to shooting. He has a knack for the well-placed cross or the give-and-go, just as well as for a spectacular half-volley or bicycle kick. At 27, he is hitting his stride – and that’s sure to attract attention from European sides, so Sporting fans had better enjoy the show while it lasts.
Unsung Hero: Júlio César
The well-traveled Brazilian carries a journeyman tag, sure – but he also brings a wealth of quiet assets to his spot in the defensive midfield. He’s a solid, steadying, hard-working presence in front of that young backline, and at 33 years old, has the experience and game smarts to know when to move forward. Also, the guy played for Real Madrid; he knows what it takes to play the game at the highest club level, and those sort of intangibles translate in training as well as on the field.
Ready for Primetime: Aurélien Collin
The physical central defender has become a fan favorite as much for his outsized personality as for his gritty play. Case in point, he suffered a serious back injury last year and still came back at the end of the season. Collin is at his best banging around with the opposition’s big guys, but is also surprisingly deft with his feet. If he can avoid discipline and injury problems this season, Collin and Matt Besler could give Sporting one of the league’s best center back pairings.
Storylines to Watch
1. Will there be enough action up front to go around? Young strikers Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer will be pushing hard to be in the offensive mix, along with proven scorers Sapong, Kamara and Bunbury. Jacob Peterson is hoping to reignite his career as well. Can manager Peter Vermes keep all of his forwards happy with playing time?
2. Who’s the man at center forward? Sapong was a super sub last year, but does his Rookie of the Year season – and Bunbury’s late preseason call-up to the US Olympic team – mean that Sapong will enter this season as the starter?
3. Who will be the team’s heart and soul? The players who have defined the club’s identity in seasons past are gone now, with Davy Arnaud the most recent to depart in the Expansion Draft. Who will step into that high-profile spot, either as captain or unofficial spokesman?
What He Said
“Everybody’s focused and ready to rebuild off last season. We were pretty fit coming in last year, and for us to top that this year shows how focused and determined everybody is. We want to get to [MLS Cup] and win it.”
– Sporting KC forward C.J. Sapong
If Everything Goes Right:
Sporting stayed in the Eastern Conference when Montreal moved up a level into MLS, so a regular-season conference championship isn’t out of the question – with or without a Designated Player. The regular season, though, is secondary to the club’s stated goal of reaching the MLS Cup Final. If everyone stays healthy, and there’s no playoff collapse, that’s where Sporting should end its season.
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting KC for MLSsoccer.com.