Sporting Kansas City has 29 of a possible 30 roster slots occupied. We’ll assume that extra slot remains open in hopes forward Kei Kamara returns from his loan to Norwich City of the English Premier League in mid-May. The club is deeper than last season, a factor that probably won’t matter as much in MLS play as it will when the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions’ League roll around this summer. Believe it or not, Sporting KC got younger during the offseason — the average age of the roster dipped from 25.03 years to 24.79. Here’s a look at the roster breakdown by position:FORWARDS
Losing Kamara, who led Sporting KC in goals each of the last three seasons, obviously is a blow. The club hopes third-year forward C.J. Sapong, who is a freak athlete like Kamara, can ease that loss by adapting to the right wing. With Teal Bunbury recovering from a torn ACL and Jacob Peterson out a few weeks after shoulder surgery, depth up top becomes an even bigger issue for an attack that generated 42 goals last season, which tied for 12th in MLS and was second-worst among playoff qualifiers.• Big question:
Designated Player Claudio Bieler was brought in to bring greater goal-scoring punch, but how long will it take him to adjust to a new league? Born in Argentina but a star for LDU Quito in Ecuador at the time of his transfer, Bieler isn’t a one-trick pony. He’ll poach goals, score from distance and is deceptively dangerous on set pieces in the air despite a 5-foot-11 frame. Bieler has scored everywhere he’s been, a trend Sporting KC needs him to continue.• Key player:
Obviously, Bieler fits here too, but we’ll go with Bobby Convey. When he was healthy early last season, Sporting KC seemed fluid and stormed to a 7-0-0 start. The attack bogged down more when Convey was out during the summer months. Now as fit as he’s ever been, Convey’s resurgence could be pivotal for Sporting KC’s MLS Cup chances.
Soony Saad. All he does is score goals. A former Gatorade national player of the year and Michigan Mr. Soccer, Saad netted 172 goals in high school. He had 19 as a freshman with the Wolverines and seems to score in every U.S. Open Cup or preseason game he enters. Perhaps 2013 is when he breaks through more with the senior squad.MIDFIELDERS
Is there a more intriguing midfield pairing entering the season than Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber? Zusi, who finished third in MVP voting last season, established himself as one of the league’s premier playmakers after recording an MLS-best 15 assists last season. Meanwhile, Feilhaber has the technical ability to surpass even Zusi’s brilliance. He’s looking to bounce back from a rocky stint with the New England Revolution.• Big question:
The lingering question in the midfield is how to replace Roger Espinoza, who signed with Wigan Athletic of the English Premier League in the January transfer window. Espinoza was a disruptive beast — aggressive and strong in the midfield — which Sporting KC will miss. Veteran Paulo Nagamura will be asked to take over as the club’s energetic midfield enforcer, but don’t be surprised if Sporting KC is actually better in possession this season.• Key player:
It has to be the well-traveled Feilhaber, who played in Germany, England and Denmark before coming to MLS. He was considered a rising star for the U.S. men’s national team only six years ago and performed well at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, but the two seasons he spent with the Revolution were largely a struggle. If he can find the form he showed midway through last decade, Feilhaber could be a driving force in a season filled with “painting the wall.”• One to watch:
Oriol Rosell. The 20-year-old Spaniard should find himself entrenched in the defensive midfield spot vacated by Julio Cesar as the season progresses. Rosell, who goes by “Uri,” has the potential to emerge as a bright young star with his experience in FC Barcelona’s youth system as well as his precocious technical ability and poise. Don’t sleep on Peterson Joseph either.DEFENDERS
Sporting KC allowed a league-low 27 goals last season. Every other team in the Eastern Conference conceded at least 41 goals. The entire starting defense returns, led by MLS goalkeeper of the year Jimmy Nielsen, along with two Best XI centerbacks — Matt Besler, the league’s defender and breakout player of the year, and Aurelien Collin. Right back Chance Myers and left back Seth Sinovic also return to a unit that allowed only 102 shots in 34 games.• Big question:
Can Sporting KC do it again? The “starting defense” returning intact would suggest that it’s possible, but the reality with coach Peter Vermes’ style of play is that the entire team has an important role in keeping clean sheets. Bieler, Feilhaber and Rosell must buy into the system and work hard to hold up counterattacks and create turnovers well before the back line or Nielsen get involved. That was the real secret to success last season.• Key player:
Besler. Sure, Nielsen will turn 36 this season, but that’s still relatively young by goalkeeper standards. A year ago, the ever-steady Besler established himself as one of the league’s top centerbacks. Now, though, he has U.S. men’s national team aspirations and the weight of increased expectations to deal with — not that Besler should have trouble handling it.• One to watch:
How about a goal watch between Myers and Sinovic? Neither has scored in the MLS regular season. Of course, Myers did have seven assists last season, which was the most in the league for a defender, and Sinovic scored in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals loss to the Houston Dynamo. The development of centerback Ike Opara and newly signed reserve right back Jerome Mechack also merit attention.