This year was supposed to be different.
The Kansas City Star
The 2012 version of Sporting Kansas City was stronger (many of the team stayed in KC to train with workout warrior Matt Besler), more prepared (10 of the 11 players in the lineup for the first leg against Houston on Sunday played in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals) and more experienced (newcomers this season Paulo Nagamura and Bobby Convey would bring years of MLS maturity).
And yet, exactly 368 days later, the Sporting KC season ended exactly the same way it did in 2011, with the Houston Dynamo walking off the pitch at Livestrong Sporting Park winners and Sporting Kansas City heading off the pitch facing two months of vacation.
That's how the best regular season (18 wins, 63 points, an MLS-best 27 goals allowed and winners of the U.S. Open Cup) in franchise history ends. There were many high points, for sure.
Graham Zusi leapt into the MVP stratosphere. Matt Besler cemented himself as a likely MLS Best Defender candidate now and likely for years to come. Aurelien Collin likely did the same. Jimmy Nielsen etched his name into the "club legend" category alongside Tony Meola. And Roger Espinoza is no longer our secret Honduran honey badger thanks to his outstanding play not only for KC, but also in the 2012 Olympics with Honduras.
But where did it all go wrong at the end? How did the resolute, determined team that opened the 2012 campaign with seven-straight wins and closed it with a 12-match unbeaten streak falter in the first round?
For pretty much the same reason they faltered last year: Despite all of the fight,* this team lacks bite. (All thunder, not much lightning if you will.)
*For example: KC outshot Houston last night 20-3 and controlled the ball an astounding 71% of the time. That's close to a fairly common stat-line for KC in 2012.
Scoring was an uphill battle all season and the squad finished with just 42 regular season goals -- the second worst offensive output of the 10 MLS playoff teams.
Sporting KC has weapons: C.J. Sapong is a promising and developing target man; Teal Bunbury is a mercurial but talented forward (currently recovering for a devastating knee injury); Kei Kamara is the human shot machine (whose misses are often as spectacular as his makes); Jacob Peterson is all heart and handwork (but his four goals this year matched his career high; and Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer are young players with potential but little to no experience.
But you wouldn't call any of them bankable finishers.
Wednesday night -- and, quite frankly, most of the season -- a finisher is exactly what KC needed. It didn't just feel like chance after chance went wanting against Houston -- KC literally missed about a half dozen great chances.
Going forward, this team needs someone to step up (or step in to the team) who knows how to finish one of the dozen lovely passes that Zusi pumps into the box every game.* Or slide into the backdoor play off a brilliant run across the defense. Or capitalize when accidentally alone in front of the 'keeper. This was my biggest worry when KC's resident clinical finisher, Omar Bravo, jumped ship last season.
At this point, I think Zusi could drop a 50-yard cross-field pass into a small wastebasket if he had to.
Kamara led the team in scoring with 11 goals this year, but it was just his second double-digit scoring season ever -- and also his career high for a season.
Sapong did increase his goal output this season (from 5 to 9) but Bunbury (due to injury) saw his goal output decrease (from 9 to 5). Zusi pitched in five goals (same as his 2011 total) and Jacob Peterson, the team's fifth leading scorer, managed to tie his career high with four.
But nobody filled the Bravo void and replaced his nine goals from '11 (which was fairly poor considering his quality as a player).*
*I think the injury to Bunbury in August was pretty huge in this regard. Despite his erratic play, he gave KC a formidable 1-2 punch with him and Sapong, something that KC couldn't replicate when it needed to down the stretch. Bunbury finished with five goals, it's not hard to imagine he'd have pushed for double-digits if healthy.
It almost seems fitting that KC's last goal scored this year was from its left back Seth Sinovic -- it was a lovely goal, to be fair, but it's also the first ever MLS goal by a guy who isn't known for his offensive ability.
Sporting Kansas City's front office will not only be planning for the MLS regular season and the defense of its Open Cup title in 2013, but also the rigorous CONCACAF Champions League. Which means building a stronger team is even more of a priority this offseason to compete on those three fronts. The team needs more experience, a deeper and more versatile bench and to shore up what is already a solid foundation for the future.
The defense is already great (and still relatively young), Nielsen is still a rock at the back (and extended through next season), the future of the midfield (Oriol Rosell-Peterson Joseph-Zusi perhaps?) looks very promising and the forward line (despite its lack of goals) is still an athletic marvel that some teams just can't handle.
Which means adding a clinical finisher -- likely on a designated player salary unless a potential Golden Boot winner (like, maybe, Sebastien Le Toux?) is available this off-season -- should be the missing piece that takes this team over the top.
Or else seasons will continue to end like this.