Sporting Kansas City’s chase for the second Major League Soccer championship in franchise history is under way.
Preseason training kicked off this week at the Chiefs’ indoor practice facility. Training will continue there through Saturday before Sporting, the reigning Eastern Conference regular-season victors, head south to Phoenix for a few weeks.
Of course, a chunk of the roster has been turned over, so despite last season’s success this is a new-look squad for manager Peter Vermes.
Midfielder and captain Davy Arnaud is gone, traded to the expansion Montreal Impact, while forward and designated player Omar Bravo, who tied for the team lead with nine goals last season, returned to his native Mexico.
Midfielder Ryan Smith, who left the team for personal reasons in June, was traded to Chivas USA.
Disappointing acquisitions Milos Stojcev, who started 11 games last season, and Jeferson, a designated player on loan from Vasco de Gama in Brazil, were jettisoned along with oft-injured midfielder Craig Rocastle and seldom-used defender Scott Lorenz.
Defender Shavar Thomas, who started 16 games in 2010, wasn’t offered a contract after losing his starting spot last season.
“Obviously, there has been quite a bit of movement in the offseason,” Vermes said last week during a preseason press conference to introduce some of Sporting KC’s newest members. “We search high and low around the world to find gems, and it’s not the easiest of things.”
But every move was made with Vermes’ stated goal of building more depth on the roster from the bottom up in mind.
“The only way to increase performance on the field is by creating more and more competition within the team,” Vermes said. “If your training sessions are at a higher level, then your game will be at a higher level.”
Much of the team’s core remains, including a lethal collection of forwards and a defensive group that returns completely intact, but there are plenty of new names for Sporting KC’s fans to learn — like Bobby Convey, Paulo Nagamura, Michael Thomas and Jacob Peterson.
“It’s always disappointing to see guys leave, especially guys like Bravo and Davy Arnaud,” said starting left back Seth Sinovic, who was selected by Montreal during the expansion draft but was traded back to Sporting KC in the Arnaud deal. “But we understand that it’s a business and there’s going to be some shuffling of the roster every year.”
Sporting KC came within a game of making the MLS Cup final last season, so the prevailing sentiment around the league and in the locker room is that the club isn’t far from competing for a title.
“I’m really excited about the guys we’ve added so far,” defender Matt Besler said. “We’re a pretty confident team as it is and I don’t feel like we need a lot of guys, but we need the right guys.”
Sporting hopes the new additions are the needed missing pieces, but if there’s a glaring deficiency on the roster, it’s that the club lost so much leadership with the departures of Arnaud and Bravo.
“There is a big leadership gap, but I also feel like there are a few guys that are ready to step up, myself included,” Besler said. “Plus, we added Bobby and Paulo. Those two guys bring a ton of experience both in the MLS and abroad, which will help out a lot. Whether they come in from day one and are vocal leaders remains to be seen, but just their presence makes an impact.”
Vermes, for one, isn’t worried.
“Within a team, it’s never just one person,” Vermes said. “It’s a group of individuals who, at different times throughout the season, pull the right strings within the locker room and also on the field during game time.
“Adding these guys I think helps. Our objective is not to return to where we were last year; it’s to surpass that and get to the final. That’s our goal and what we’re going to go after, and I think these guys can help us do that.”
2012 SPORTING KANSAS CITY ROSTER BREAKDOWN
With more than 30 players currently in training, Sporting Kansas City has some tough decisions to make between now and March 10 when the club takes part in MLS First Kick at D.C. United. The roster limit is 30, and Sporting KC might enter the season with only 28 on the team’s roll, so the next few weeks are critical in determining the shape of things to come.
GOALKEEPERS: Sporting Kansas City is fairly well set here. Team most valuable player and fan favorite Jimmy Nielsen is entrenched as the starter and signed a contract extension during the offseason. Backup Eric Kronberg played well in spot duty last season and is a capable reserve, while Jon Kempin, a Homegrown Player from Blue Valley North, is the long-term future.
DEFENDERS: Starting centerbacks Matt Besler, an MLS All-Star, and Aurelien Collin return along with right back Chance Myers, a former No. 1 pick, and left back Seth Sinovic, who was selected by Montreal in the expansion draft then traded back to Sporting KC five days later. Brazilian Julio Cesar, who spent much of last season playing defensive midfielder, provides depth in the middle of the defense, while Michael Harrington provides experienced depth outside. But Sporting KC has no shortage of options for defensive depth, including four players — Korede Aiyegbusi, Daneil Cyrus, Kevin Ellis and Lawrence Olum — who are holdovers from last season. The club also spent its second-round pick in the SuperDraft on defender Cyprian Hedrick, the Big South defensive player of the year from Coastal Carolina, and added young defenders — UCLA’s Shawn Singh, Overland Park native and Rockhurst University grad Kyle Miller and 6-foot-6 centerback Stefan Antonijevic — with three supplemental draft choices.
MIDFIELDERS: Something has to give. Rising star Graham Zusi, who is the reigning MLS Breakout Player of the Year and debuted Saturday with the U.S. Men’s National Team, returns from last season along with Honduran Roger Espinoza. But Sporting KC also added veteran Paulo Nagamura, a versatile Brazilian with a hard-nosed reputation, and Olathe native Michael Thomas, who played with Besler at Notre Dame. Three additional holdovers from last season remain in Haitian Peterson Joseph, 2011 second-round draft pick Konrad Warzycha and Luke Sassano, who has been limited to 12 games the last two seasons with ankle and knee injuries. Sporting KC also added Pablo Punyed in the supplemental draft.
FORWARDS: The long-term concern is that Teal Bunbury or C.J. Sapong could be wooed to Europe, but for now Sporting KC is in good shape. Kei Kamara and Bunbury, who buried nine shots apiece into the net last season, were two of three goal-scoring leaders for the club last season. Sapong is the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year after netting five goals and five assists. Sporting KC bolstered the left side of its attack by adding Bobby Convey and provided depth across the board with veteran Jacob Peterson’s signing last week. Another veteran, Birahim Diop, also remains, but the club boasts two intriguing, young scoring talents as well in 19-year-old phenom Soony Saad and first-round pick Dom Dwyer, an English native drafted out of South Florida.