Conspiracy alert: Since its rebrand in 2010, Sporting Kansas City has NEVER hosted a match on First Kick weekend!
The Kansas City Star
The first year (when Sporting Park wasn't even open, granted) KC went to Los Angeles to face Chivas USA. The second year, it was off to D.C. This year, Philadelphia.
Actually, it might not be that bad. As I wrote earlier this week, the franchise isn't too bad starting on the road -- especially over the last 12 seasons.
Kickoff is at 3 p.m. -- hey, at least Kansas City plays in the FIRST match of the season -- and you can watch on KCWE with Callum Williams and Jake Yadrich. (KC's normal TV partner, KSMO, will not air the first two games of the season due to conflicts. Read more here.)
Let's get to previewing shall we?
1. How will Claudio Bieler perform in his first proper MLS match?
A lot is riding on the team's new designated player -- but, that's what happens you're the highest paid player on the team. He picked up a goal in the last preseason game, but was mostly anonymous in Orlando. That could be just part of the program for Bieler. He looked much more fit at the team's media day last week than he did when arriving in KC in December.
What Kansas City needs from Bieler this year is to be the clinical finisher that KC hasn't had since Josh Wolff stopped playing like Josh Wolff. He won't need 20 goals to impress (well, that would be impressive I guess). He just needs to consistently be consistent. Say, 12 goals and always drawing attention from both center backs.
2. How will KC adapt to a more possession-based offense?
This will not be the same pressing/shoot-first-aim-later team it was last year. Peter Vermes said as much as media day this week.
With Oriol Rosell and Benny Feilhaber, Kansas City should be less direct and less reliant on peppering the net with shots. It should have the option of using the middle or pushing it out wide and letting two of the league's best crossers (Graham Zusi and Bobby Convey) create chances with a cultured cross. (Not to mention that having an MVP candidate like Zusi closer to goal might increase close-quarter chances and possession in and around the penalty box.)
All of this will funnel into Bieler. And, well, see Question 1.
3. How much will KC miss Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara?
Kansas City has lost players before. (Omar Bravo, Davy Arnaud, Jimmy Conrad, Jack Jewsbury, Eddie Johnson, Josh Wolff, etc., etc.) But it hasn't dealt with the loss of two players who helped KC not only win games but establish an identity on the field.
Espinoza had a lot to do with the success of KC's high-pressure system. And, offensively, Kamara took more shots last season than just about any other player in the history of the league. Both players brought unpredictably to the table and that was hard for teams to game-plan for. In that sense, they wil be greatly missed. Especially early while KC adapts to life without them.
However, Kansas City might have exchanged that unpredictably for consistency and creativity. If Vermes is right on Bieler, he's a very technical finisher who might not score the extravagant goals like Kamara, but he might put away goals with more regularity. (Meaning: He might not need double-digit shots per game to pick up his goals.) As for Feilhaber, he brings creativity to the middle that Espinoza couldn't.
4. Will this be KC's year?
I've already talked and argued this a bit on this week's episode of Kick The Ball (give it a listen, it's a good podcast).
My answer: I think Kansas City has a very good team and will compete for some silverware this year, but they will struggle to cope with commitments in the league, the Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League.
34 regular season games. Potentially 5 defending the U.S. Open Cup. Another four (at least) in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. Then the rigors of the MLS Cup playoffs.
They can (and will) be in the running for it. That expectation isn't out of bounds. But the reality is that winning the Cup requires a bit of skill and a bit of luck. Let us not forget the lessons of the last two seasons: The MLS Cup playoffs are an absolute crapshoot.
Something else to consider: The Eastern Conference is much more difficult this year than last -- and KC only finished six points higher in the East than fourth-place Chicago.
My MLS Cup prediction: Houston vs. Seattle. (I'm going to duck now.)
MLS veteran official Mark Geiger is in charge today. So... do with that information as you will.
Kansas City: OUT - Teal Bunbury (ACL surgery), Jacob Peterson (shoulder surgery)
Kansas City: Mikey Lopez (U.S. U-20s)
Starting Lineup Guess
I went back and forth with Convey and Sapong on the left wing. Eventually, I went with the theory that Convey is a much better crosser of the ball and Sapong is a massive threat coming off the bench. (However, Vermes said that he had been very impressed this offseason by Sapong. He will be a factor.)
GK: Jimmy Nielsen-c; DEF: Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; MID: Oriol Rosell, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber; FWD: Graham Zusi, Claudio Beiler, Bobby Convey
SUBS: Eric Kronberg, Josh Gardner, Ike Opara, Lawrence Olum, Peterson Joseph, Soony Saad, C.J. Sapong
Kansas City 1, Philadelphia 1 The City of Brotherly Love hasn't always been so friendly to KC (remember the 4-0 game last year?) and this Union team looks improved on paper (Sebastien Le Toux, Jack MacInerney and Connor Casey up top could be a nightmare). I could see KC slipping out of Phily with a win (Philly is rebuilding its defense this season after Carlos Valdes returned to Colombia), but a draw is the smart play here.* I'll call the goals by Sapong (a late one at that) and Le Toux.
*Also: A draw on the road against a conference opponent is a good result. Remember that before any Twitter meltdowns tonight.
MatchDay Hype Song
2013 will be the year for Kansas City bands in this space. (Or, in this case, a St. Joseph band.) I'm going to kick off the year with a band I absolutely love: Radkey.
They're going to be part of a big showcase at South by Southwest later this month and the oldest member of the band is still a teenager. So, there's room to grow.
They've got a nice mixture of Misfits/Bad Brains (two of my favorite bands) on this particular song, "Cat & Mouse." Give it a listen. It's really great.