Sporting KC

Sporting KC’s focus now shifts to Champions League

Peter Vermes slogged across a cold, nearly frozen Sporting Park last weekend, his mind quickly progressing from one thought to the next. In the initial moments after Sporting Kansas City clinched the MLS Cup on Dec. 7, Vermes says he was hit with a rush of emotion.

There were high-fives with players, handshakes and hugs with fellow coaches and a brief but memorable conversation with Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman, one of the team’s owners.

On the field, Heineman congratulated Vermes, who became the first man in MLS history to win the league championship as a player and a coach for the same franchise. Vermes returned the greeting.

Then Heineman offered a parting thought.

“I told him, ‘Let’s go win the Champions League,’” Heineman said.

To which Vermes replied, “Can you give me a day to enjoy this?’”

Perhaps, or even a couple. But not much longer.

Two days after Sporting KC hoisted the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, the team enjoyed an MLS Cup celebration in a packed Sprint Festival Plaza at Union Station.

Then came a reminder that it’s already back to business. Jimmy Nielsen, the team’s No. 1 goalie for the past four seasons, announced his retirement Monday, choosing to leave the sport as a champion after 19 years.

That will require a major change on the Sporting KC roster, but perhaps one of very few, Heineman said in a conversation Thursday.

Sporting KC waived defenders Brendan Ruiz and Kyle Miller on Wednesday, though neither appeared in an MLS match during their tenures with the team. Two days later, the club acquired midfielder Sal Zizzo in a trade with Portland.

While Sporting KC continues to look for upgrades — Vermes left for a European scouting trip only three days after winning the Cup — larger changes to the roster appear less likely.

“I think it will look pretty similar,” Heineman said of the roster. “I know Peter has a couple of things he’s working on. There’s a couple of components we’d like to plug in here and there, but generally the core group of players we have is a great one.”

Striker Dom Dwyer, who worked his way into that core group during the postseason, said he has had discussions to return to his native England on loan with a Football League Championship team.

“I’m just waiting to hear more,” Dwyer said. “I’ve had interest from a few teams. But I’m just enjoying it and listening to stuff. It should be a fun offseason.”

Sporting KC plans to look at both internal and external options to replace Nielsen.

Erik Kronberg, 30, is the longest-tenured player on the Sporting KC roster after joining the then-Wizards in the 2006 season. But he’s started only four MLS games over his eight seasons with the club.

Jon Kempin, 20, is the team’s first homegrown player. He has never seen MLS action.

“We feel very good about Erik Kronberg — he’s been here for a long time and knows the organization in great detail,” Heineman said. “I think we have all the confidence in the world he can be a No. 1 keeper. But I think we’ll bring someone in along with Jon Kempin to compete.”

It’s been more than on-the-field production that has made Nielsen valuable — a point Vermes stressed often over the past month. Nielsen retired as the team’s captain.

“I feel very confident, from the group we have, that so many guys will step up and take up for the area we’re going to miss — and that’s his leadership,” Vermes said.

Vermes hopes that player will emerge over the grind of a long season that is already just around the corner.

Players report to Kansas City to begin training on Jan. 18 before departing for two-week-long trips to Tucson, Ariz., and Orlando.

Sporting KC will travel to Seattle on March 8 to kick off the MLS season on NBC Sports.

The team will also play a two-game series in March against Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League — and that’s where Heineman’s focus lies.

“That’s the great thing about the relationship Peter and I have — I think we’re both always hungry for more,” Heineman said. “Even as great as that (championship) was, we both were thinking (of) what we should try to accomplish next.

“Obviously, the Champions League is next on that list.”