When Jimmy Nielsen retired at the end of last year, he left behind not only a void in front of KC's goal but also a vacant captain's armband.
A captain is largely a symbolic job — he walks the team out of the tunnel, exchanges pleasantries with the opposing captain, handles the coin toss, etc. — but it's a job that carries with it a lot of respect both on and off the field. He's the voice of the coach on the field and is (usually) in charge of representing his teammates to the referees.
With many teams — Sporting KC included, at least when it was Nielsen — the captain has also been responsible for rallying the team in turbulent times and defusing tense situations. (When you play the way KC plays and when you play with Aurelien Collin, those happen a lot.)
The captain is also usually the first player in front of the media and fans. An ideal captain has to have solid a mixture of leadership, charisma, influence and maturity.
Since Peter Vermes took over the team as head coach in 2010, the captain's armband has been traded from Jimmy Conrad (somewhat controversially) to Davy Arnaud before landing on Nielsen to start the 2012 season. All three were synonymous with either the Wizards or Sporting KC and carried a tremendous amount of influence on and off the field.
It will be a big role to fill this year, especially as Kansas City navigates the defense of the MLS Cup and playing in the tense knockout stages of the CONCACAF Champions League. Yeah, no pressure.
Who will wear the armband this year when Sporting Kansas City takes the field against Seattle next week?
There are several candidates to take over the job this year. The team will officially reveal the captain during the Sporting Takeoff event on March 4 (also known as media day and the debut of the new 2014 secondary kit).
Here are The Full 90's picks (really, these are guesses) at who might wear the armband in 2014. I've ranked them in order of most likely.
1. Matt Besler
If you can think of a narrative surrounding the captaincy that's better than "local boy who grew up rooting for the franchise becomes star player with the franchise and then takes over as captain in the year he'll likely be a World Cup starter while also entering his athletic prime as a defender" I'd love to hear it.
Besler is, really, the perfect captain. He had to earn the respect and trust of his coach the hard way. He's put together a string of seasons that rival the best defenders in Kansas City franchise history — a group that includes his coach and Conrad by the way.
He also plays a position that lends itself to captaincy. As a central defender, you can see the whole field and you're already in charge of marshaling the defense.
The big thing that tips the armband in his favor: He's already the face of the franchise. If the team needs a big-name, well-spoken, media-friendly ambassador to trot out, it's going to Besler.
I'd be shocked if someone else was picked over him this year. It makes so much sense. But, if I had to pick anyone else
2. Paulo Nagamura
If Vermes wants to opt for a "player that most resembles what his coach looks for in a player" as captain, it would probably be the 30-year-old Nagamura.
The past few captains have all been veteran players who bring years of experience from a multitude of situations. Nagamura was brought to Kansas City several years ago precisely for his experience and veteran savvy.
Nagamura also plays a position that lends itself to captaincy, as he has to effectively communicate with his two midfield partners AND the defense AND the forwards to connect play and organize on defense.
However, while he's a very a good player (who often is maligned by people who sometimes don't necessarily reward the sort of tenacity and bravery his position requires) and a coach favorite, he's never been the face of this franchise. Vice captain for the games that Besler is away for national-team duty? Sure. Everyday captain? Don't really see it.
3. Eric Kronberg
I really don't think that the competition will drift away from the two players listed already, but if it does, Kronbergis
the most tenured member of the roster.
Kronberg has been with the team since 2006 and is the elder statesman on the franchise, but this will be his first year as a regular contributor. A goalkeeper can have a lot of influence on the team from the back line (as Nielsen proved the last two years), but I don't see Kronberg having that same influence at this stage.
Dark Horse Candidates
In my humble opinion as a Sporting KC observer, it will likely be one of the three players above. More than likely one of the first two players. But, you can never rule out the possibility of a dark horse or two looming out there.
Claudio Bieler is the team's designated player (and likely highest-paid player). Graham Zusi is the team's creative force and one of the best technical talents in MLS. Both players will be highly-visible in driving Kansas City's attack. However, neither player is really known as a vocal leader on or off the field. Both could be considered in certain circumstances, but I'd be very surprised if either were named regular captain.
One player who I really don't think it will be: Collin. While he is a tremendous defender and definitely qualifies as potential "face of the franchise" guy, his yellow-card accumulation and tendency to get sucked into overly physical extracurricular activities probably negates his impact as "on-field leader."