Sporting Kansas City returns all 11 starters from last year’s Eastern Conference finals match and opted not to make a big splash during the winter transfer window. Coach Peter Vermes will rely on the young squad (average age 25.03) that he’s been building for the last two or three years. Here’s a closer look at the roster broken down position-by-position.
Despite the loss of designated player Omar Bravo (who returned to Mexico), Kansas City is in good hands at forward. Three starters from last year’s Eastern Conference finals match return: Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury and MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong.
To bolster the squad, Vermes added Bobby Convey, a veteran of MLS, a World Cup and the English Premier League. The team spent its first-round pick on English striker Dom Dwyer.
Big question: Where will the goals come from? Only one player currently on the roster, Kamara, has a season with double-digit goals under his belt. The team will need him to aim for 10-plus goals and hope that Bunbury can match his ’11 output (nine goals) and that Sapong continues his progress (five goals last season).
Key player: Kamara. While many drool over the athletic ability of Sapong and Bunbury, it will be the team’s veteran that is tasked with leading the forward line and raising his scoring output.
One to watch: Soony Saad. The 19-year-old might get lost in the shuffle, but in limited time last season and in this preseason, he’s shown the skills of a poacher.
KC’s midfield threesome of Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Brazilian vet Julio Cesar sneaked up on the league last year. It won’t happen again this year. The book is out on the them. Zusi was the team’s creative anchor for most of the season and primary free-kick taker. Espinoza was the hard-tackling ball hunter. Cesar was the calm distributor with a knack for a timely slide tackle.
Sporting will rely on Olathe native Michael Thomas (who had spent a few seasons in Sweden) and Chivas USA midfielder Paulo Nagamura to fill the void left by Davy Arnaud and push the incumbent starters.
Big question: Kansas City chased an attacking midfielder (a true playmaker) in the offseason, but was unsuccessful. Zusi will be saddled with the burden of fulfilling that duty. He managed that role well last season, winning MLSSoccer.com’s 2011 Breakout Player of the Year honors. Can he raise his game and creativity to the next level?
Key player: Espinoza. The Honduran international player is the engine that drives KC’s high-pressure system. He’ll need to keep his temper in check and stay on the field as much as possible after developing a reputation as a dirty player by some around MLS.
One to watch: Konrad Warzycha. After missing all of last season because of knee surgery, the team’s third-round pick in the 2011 SuperDraft turned heads with his play in the preseason. He’s got good bloodlines too, his father, Robert, is the coach of the Columbus Crew.
It wasn’t until the end of KC’s long road trip last season that Peter Vermes finally found the right four-man group on defense — Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic. After the group came together, Sporting started winning games and stopped conceding soft goals.
The key reserve last year was Michael Harrington, a one-time starter who will push Myers and Sinovic. The team spent its second-round pick on defender Cyprian Hedrick and will expect Homegrown Player Kevin Ellis to earn playing time this season.
Big question: Is there enough depth? The remaining four defenders (Lawrence Olum, Hedrick, Korede Aiyegbusi, Ellis) have a combined nine games of MLS experience.
Key player: Besler. The Overland Park native will enter this season as the unquestioned starter for the first time in his young career. Physically, he’s capable of handling the job, but can he continue to grow in the cerebral covering defender that Vermes desires?
One to watch: Ellis. Last year was the Oak Park graduate’s first in MLS and didn’t get any league action. However, he did manage a goal in the exhibition against Chivas Guadalajara.
Jimmy Nielsen, the 34-year-old reigning team MVP, enters the season as the unquestioned leader. He will wear the captain’s armband and shoulder a lot of the burden of the team’s great expectations. Behind him are seldom-used backup Eric Kronberg and 18-year-old Jon Kempin.
Big question: What happens if Nielsen gets hurt? If Kronberg’s back (he’s out four to six weeks because of a lower back injury and coming off sports-hernia surgery this offseason) takes a long time to heal, Kempin will almost surely be thrown into a game situation before he’s completely ready.
Key player: Nielsen. The White Puma needs to equal or better his average of 1.14 goals allowed per game and seven shutouts from last year.
One to watch: Kempin. The team’s first Homegrown Player will try to push Kronberg for playing time this year.
| Charles Gooch, email@example.com