The Full 90

Daunting year awaits Sporting Kansas City in 2013

Sporting KC may still be hurting, but it can turn this year into a steppingstone.

Updated: 2012-11-11T06:58:46Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

Sporting Kansas City met as a team and enjoyed a final meal together Friday at the club’s Swope Park training facility, two days after being eliminated by Houston in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The sting of losing that series and coming up short of the MLS Cup final for a second straight season against the Dynamo was still fresh.

“I’m still bleeding inside from the loss against Houston,” captain and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. “I wanted more. The team wanted more. The whole organization wanted more. The fans wanted more, and they deserve more than what they got.”

At the same time, there’s excitement building for the 2013 season.

Sporting KC, which won its second straight conference crown and set club records for points (63) and regulation wins (18), still hopes to capture that elusive second league championship.

Manager Peter Vermes’ club also has a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title to defend and a CONCACAF Champions League crown to chase.

“There’s a lot for us to play for and build off this past year,” Vermes said. “I felt like we built off last year and now we’re building off of this year. There’s no doubt there’s excitement.”

Vermes always puts an emphasis on the Open Cup, though the MLS regular season remains the most important.

It will be interesting to see how Sporting KC approaches the Champions League, which is similar to the UEFA Champions League but obviously brings together the top clubs from the previous year throughout North and Central America and the Caribbean as opposed to Europe.

Club officials say winning is the goal, but managing three competitions won’t be an easy chore.

“There’s a lot of stuff on our plate,” defender Matt Besler said. “We have to be prepared for it. Each player has to take his own responsibility in the offseason to build their foundation for next year. There’s going to be a lot of stuff going on.”

Still, even the most in-shape club can’t expect its regulars to absorb that many minutes and that many games in what promises to be a jam-packed season, especially with the U.S. men’s national team celebrating its centennial as well as vying for a seventh straight World Cup appearance and also having to manage the Gold Cup in July.

Still, don’t expect the players to feel daunted by the 2013 slate.

“It’s actually going to be fun, thinking about all those more games and international games and travels,” forward Kei Kamara said. “It’s going to be exciting. Hopefully, the roster will be stronger and we’ll have more depth.”

looking back on Sporting KC's season

By the numbers

0.79 MLS-best and club-record goals-against average for Sporting KC, which conceded only 27 goals in 34 matches in the regular season. Take out a disastrous 4-0 loss June 23 to Philadelphia, a game played by a dog-tired squad three days after a match in Seattle, and that number dips below 0.70.

1 MLS team that Sporting KC didn’t beat in 2012. The club lost its only meeting with Portland — a 1-0 result April 21 that snapped a seven-game win streak to start the season — but Sporting KC beat every other team in the league. That included Seattle and Colorado in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup run and Houston in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

5 Conference titles in Sporting KC’s history after wearing the Eastern Conference regular-season crown for the second straight season. It marked the first time the club had repeated as conference champions. The Wizards won three Western Conference titles in 1997, 2000 and 2004.

12 Length of Sporting’s unbeaten streak closing the regular season. The 7-0-5 run, which started with a 1-0 win Aug. 4 at New England, is the longest stretch without a loss in MLS this season and the second-longest in club history — trailing only a 14-game stretch in 2011.

18 Victories for goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who played all 34 games and all 3,060 minutes of the regular season for Sporting KC. Nielsen now shares the MLS record for wins in a season in the non-shootout era (post-2000) with Pat Onstad (2005), Donovan Ricketts (2010) and Kasey Keller (2011).

2 Potential free agents. Midfielder Roger Espinoza and defender Matt Besler are the only players not under contract or at least with a club/player option for next season. There’s zero chance Sporting KC won’t hammer out a deal with Besler, a 2005 Blue Valley West graduate. As for Espinoza?

40 Percent chance Espinoza returns next season, according to manager Peter Vermes’ “gut feeling.” During the summer transfer window, the relentless Espinoza became a hot name after his star turn with the Honduras Olympic team. Wigan Athletic is among Espinoza’s European suitors.

63 Club record for points after finishing 18-7-9 in during the regular season. It broke the record of 57 set in 2000. Sporting KC became only the third club to top 60 points in season, joining the LA Galaxy (1998, 2011) and San Jose (2005, 2012). The 18 victories set another record for wins in regulation.

542 Shots attempted by Sporting KC during the regular season, the most in MLS and another club record. Of course, only 42 resulted in goals — a 7.7 conversion rate — that highlights the team’s finishing struggles. Only Chivas USA, which scored 24 goals from 397 shots, was worse.

19,404 Record average attendance this season for Sporting KC, which topped the old mark set in Livestrong Sporting Park’s inaugural season in 2011 (17,810). Sixteen of 17 home dates were sold out, including the last 15 in a row. It’s the first time the club’s attendance topped the MLS league average.

Three defining . . .

. . . Moments

Aug. 8 vs. Seattle: Sporting KC had hoped to “paint the wall” three times, but San Jose nipped manager Peter Vermes’ crew by three points in the Supporters’ Shield race and Houston ended the club’s quest for the MLS Cup. That leaves beating the Sounders for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (and ending a three-year stranglehold for manager Sigi Schmid’s squad) as the key moment for 2012 — and one worthy of the celebration it touched off. For one, it showed how much Sporting KC had grown up year over year.

Nov. 4 at Houston: During the 2011 Eastern Conference final, a young Sporting KC bunch got a lesson in managing emotions in a playoff match from the battle-hardened Dynamo. Those lessons continued in the first leg of the conference semifinals when one moment’s lapse in concentration allowed Calen Carr to turn up the left flank, suck three defenders away from goal and find Will Bruin unmarked for an easy put-away — the goal that ultimately ended Sporting KC’s season.

Sept. 19 at New York: It was perhaps the most astonishing and complete thrashing Sporting KC authored in 2012. Playing on the Red Bulls’ home turf, where outgoing coach Hans Backe’s squad was 10-0-3 entering play, Sporting KC netted two goals in the opening 19 minutes — one each by forwards C.J. Sapong and Kei Kamara. Leading the Eastern Conference by a point ahead of Chicago and sitting only two ahead of New York entering the match, It was a crucial result en route to clinching the conference title.

. . . Players

Kei Kamara: The energetic forward set high-water marks for his seven-year MLS career in goals (11) and assists (eight). He also led the league with 134 shots and generally was a menace for opposing defenses — strong on the ball, deft with his passes and a terror in the air. If Kamara, who was an All-Star, gets a little more clinical with his finishing touch, he will cement a place among the MLS elite.

Jimmy Nielsen: The Dane was picked as captain before the season and didn’t miss a second for Sporting KC, tying the all-time MLS single-season mark by logging 3,060 minutes. He finished with 15 shutouts, the second-most all-time for a single season, and boasts an MLS-record 1.02 career goals-against average — better than any goalkeeper who has logged at least 2,000 career minutes.

Graham Zusi: Handling the spotlight with humble aplomb, Zusi built off a 2011 season that saw him win the MLS breakout player of the year by leading the league with 15 assists. He also had a league-high five game-winning assists and scored five goals, including four game-winners. Along the way, the All-Star midfielder managed to establish himself as a rising international star during World Cup qualifying.

Three players who might break out in 2013

Matt Besler: He’s already an MLS All-Star and might soon be chosen defender of the year, so it probably seems odd to dub Besler a breakout candidate. At the international level, however, Besler, 25, ought to be in line for a few more chances with the U.S. men’s national team after getting a taste in 2011 and could emerge as a regular for coach Jurgen Klinsmann in much the same way as Zusi during the last year.

Peterson Joseph: Ask other Sporting KC players who has the sickest moves with a ball at his feet and Joseph gets most of the votes. Known as Haitian Xavi, he’s shown flashes of brilliance, including a superb pass for an assist against the Crew this season. Joseph, 22, also has shown a volatile side with three yellow cards and a red card in only 263 minutes over 10 appearances in 2012, a sign he still has ample room to mature.

Oriol Rosell: Brought up through La Masia, Spanish powerhouse Barcelona’s vaunted youth soccer academy, the Rosell signing was a mid-summer coup. He’s a technically gifted player with an advanced understanding of the game. Rosell, 20, delivered a game-winning goal against Toronto FC and drew raves for his performance Wednesday against Houston.

What went right

Star turns for Zusi, Espinoza

Midfielders Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza each enjoyed star turns on the international stage.

Zusi was invited to train with the U.S. men’s national team for the first time in January and so impressed that he was invited back for every other training camp the rest of the season, including for the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and the first-ever win for the U.S. on Mexican soil.

Meanwhile, Espinoza received a standing ovation at St. James Park during the 2012 London Olympics, where the world found out what Sporting KC fans already know – there’s something beautiful about watching the energetic Honduran international (and his long, jet-black locks) harass and disrupt an opposing attack.

The attention both players brought to Sporting KC not only elevates the club’s brand, but could get other players similar looks and might make the club an attractive destination for free agents.

And that’s a good thing since such exposure also risks those players moving on. Espinoza has been a hot name in the transfer market since August, while Zusi remains under the radar.

Espinoza’s contract is up, but Zusi signed a four-year deal before the season and is “extremely happy here,” he said.

Getting defensive

The almost are too many records to name set by the 2012 Sporting KC defense.

Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen and the club’s regular back four — center backs Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin flanked by right back Chance Myers and left back Seth Sinovic — permitted only 27 goals in 34 games.

All five players should return along with defensive midfielder Julio Cesar, who deserves more than a passing mention for his steady play and surgical tackling to thwart opposing attacks.

The question is, how much better can Sporting KC be back there?

“We have to stay hungry and keep setting goals each year,” Besler said. “Every year is different and it seems like it gets a little harder each year that you do well to get back to where you’re at, but we have a great group and hopefully the core stays together – and I’m sure it will.”

Kansas City becoming a soccer town?

The attendance numbers speak volumes.

Nearly every soccer match at Livestrong Sporting Park is a sellout and Sporting KC successfully built off a promising 2011 season with another strong campaign – not only on the field, but also in the stands.

“Overall, I’m happy with what we did for soccer in the city,” forward Kei Kamara said.

The club brought a championship to town — the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title — and established itself as arguably the No. 1 destination for the U.S. men’s national team.

The groundswell of love for Sporting KC and the organic nature of the team’s connection with fans is setting up the club for a bright future – very bright indeed.

What went wrong

Playoff success remains elusive

Not everything was sunshine and roses, of course.

Sporting KC fell short of its goal to win the MLS Cup title and also narrowly missed the Supporters’ Shield — two major goals for every any organization in the league.

Taking the broad perspective, it’s foolish to say the season was a failure, but there is work to do to be the model MLS franchise both on and off the field.

“We’re obviously disappointed that it’s over now, because we missed out on one of our goals, but if you look back on it I think you have to say it was a successful season,” midfielder Graham Zusi said.

Besides, Windows with group of players don’t remain open indefinitely, so there’s precious little time to waste for this group to become champions.

“I’m in my seventh year into it now, so I expect a lot more than falling short like this,” Kamara said.

Espinoza’s imminent departure

So far, Espinoza hasn’t been kidnapped and brainwashed to remain in Kansas City.

There are compelling reason for him to stay, starting with the unfinished business of winning the MLS Cup.

He’s comfortable here.

He’s developed tremendously as a professional here.

He has ’s got roots in the community.

His family, which lives in suburban Denver, is reasonably close.

The organization and facilities are second to none.

Still, Sporting KC won’t be able to match an offer from Espinoza’s European suitors dollar for dollar — probably not even dollar for every three dollars — and the MLS can’t match some of those overseas leagues in terms of prestige.

“All I know is he’s given everything he has to the team, so if he does leave he leaves on a great note,” +Matt+ Besler said. “We all know he’s going to get a great offer from Kansas City, so if he does stay we’re going to be very happy that he’s staying.”

Depth remains untested

Manager Peter Vermes isn’t guy who subs player on for the sake of using his allotment of three each game.

That’s great for continuity and developing on-field chemistry, but with a limited reserve schedule and only a handful of Open Cup games that left precious few opportunities for the backups to get baptized by fire in MLS competition.

A few untimely injuries to key veterans — Bobby Convey wasn’t a factor after June, Jacob Peterson was sidelined for significant time and Paulo Nagamura missed the playoffs — it spoiled + to plan to use their experience in the playoffs.

Several reserves — notably Lawrence Olum, Oriol Rosell and Peterson Joseph — saw some crucial minutes, but other players — Michael Thomas, Soony Saad, Konrad Warzycha and Dom Dwyer — who will be critical next season as Sporting KC plays three competitions have catching up to do.

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.

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