It's probably not that outlandish to claim that Sporting Kansas City are winning the Major League Soccer offseason. (Or, at the very least, appear to be getting everything they want before Christmas.)
Two big splashes in the transfer market (one-time U.S. international Benny Feilhaber and designated player Claudio Bieler), a shrewd low-risk/high-reward depth move or two or three (Ike Opara, Yann Songo'o, Josh Gardner) and re-signing the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year Matt Besler. A lot has been written about all of these (here here here here Kick The Ball podcast.
Providing the world doesn't end today -- looking around, everything looks all right to me so far but I'll keep my fingers crossed -- Sporting Kansas City looks set for a very interesting season next year.
Without giving up much in the way of players (only a few draft picks and some money) to acquire them, Kansas City added several options to help remake the team for its multi-pronged campaign in 2013.
Most of the team that carried them in 2012* will be back. MVP-candidate Graham Zusi. Leading scorer Kei Kamara. MLS Defender of the Year and Breakout Player Matt Besler. MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Jimmy Nielsen. The rest of the stingiest defense in the league. And it's still a very young team. As of right now only Nielsen and Gardner are at least 30-years-old. (Though Bobby Convey, Paulo Nagamura and Eric Kronberg will turn 30 this year.)*A quick reminder for those that only remember the sour taste of how the season ended: This was arguably the best regular season in franchise history.
Of course, they also had to part ways with midfield monster Roger Espinoza (who is just about signed, sealed and delivered to Wigan at this point), aging midfielder Julio Cesar and long-time stalwart Michael Harrington. But, that goes with the territory in MLS. Players move onto better things (like Espinoza). Or sometimes they make too much money for the roster spot they hold (Cesar, Harrington).
Changes of course, were also necessary after the team spent much of the year struggling to score and deal with teams who bunkered at Livestrong Sporting Park.
A goalscorer was certainly high on the "needs" board. As was an attacking midfielder.
Peter Vermes and company wasted little time and attacked the offseason with alarming speed. The object of this offseason seems so far to be quite clear: Vermes wanted to add finesse to the team and give himself more tactical options before and during a match.
Feilhaber -- one of the best attacking midfielders from a talent standpoint in the league -- certainly brings the first part.
As for the second, Vermes now has plenty of options. Tantalizing options.
On paper, this team is pretty stacked. Pretty much everywhere. At forward. In the midfield. Along the backline. On the ball. Off the ball. Over a free-kick. On the bench. In the matchday 18.
The league's best defense will return with a few new low-risk/high-reward depth options in Opara, Songo'o and Gardner. At the very least, Opara is an upgrade over Lawrence Olum as the 3rd centerback in my opinion, though Olum figures to move to defensive midfielder anyway. Harrington's departure will also probably open up some minutes for homegrown player Kevin Ellis. Which is a good thing.
The midfield will have a new look, possibly several, depending on how Vermes opts to utilize Zusi and Feilhaber. (I have my reservations if both line up in central midfield as they too many things similarly. But Zusi out wide to the right or left could give KC two different attacking hubs if spaced properly.) There are three proven midfielders (Feilhaber, Zusi, Nagamura), a reliable back-up (Olum) and two promising youngsters (Peterson Joseph/Oriol Rosell). All of them (except Zusi/Feilhaber) bring something different to the table.
We'll get a much better feel for how this is going to turn out and who the starters are come January -- though, if you don't have Paulo Nagamura penciled into the starting lineup on March 2nd somehow (if healthy, of course) then you don't really haven't been watching Peter Vermes coach. (I think he'll get Cesar's spot as defensive midfielder to start with Rosell pushing him for starts by the summer.)
That leaves just the forwards to discuss. And there's a lot to talk about, quite frankly, because there are a lot of them. By my count, 8 reliable options on the roster.
(Cue the refrain I always trot out in the offseason: YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH FORWARDS IN A 4-3-3. So,there it is.
Bieler is the team's fourth designated player, he will join the team's leading scorer (Kamara), the runner-up for league MVP (Zusi), two high draft picks from recent years (C.J. Sapong/Teal Bunbury*), two experienced players who had injuries hamper their 2012 campaign to different degrees (Bobby Convey/Jacob Peterson) and two young players who have yet to really get a chance to settle with the team (Dom Dwyer/Soony Saad) battling for minutes.*Bunbury is still recovering from ACL surgery and it's not known yet when he'll get back to full fitness. He could have an Adrian Peterson-like return this Spring, but it's probably safe to assume he's not going to return until the back half of the year.
I think Bieler, Kamara and Zusi are no brainers to get the majority of the playing time. Sapong has played in 30+ games in each of the last two years and could become the super-sub/athletic option off the bench.
But what about Convey? What about Peterson? You shouldn't sleep on either of those players. Don't think that Vermes will forget that his team clicked at the highest offensive level with Convey starting in the Spring and that there isn't anyone in MLS who gives more hustle/effort than Peterson.
Someone (maybe more than one) will see their minutes squeezed overall. But "tough choices" can also translate to "interesting options" for Vermes to ponder as KC plans for the extra 5-8 games they'll play in CONCACAF and Open Cup matches. (This isn't to mention the potential absence of multiple different players competing with their respective national teams during the year -- there are World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup!)
But, at least on paper, it looks like Vermes will have an array of options in front of him that he can potentially mix and match to tailor his tactics for many different situations. (On Kick The Ball, Zachary Cobb made the comparison to an NFL team having different packages on defense. It's not a perfect analogy, but it's a really good one to keep in mind.)
I can see an ultra-athletic lineup (Kamara-Bieler-Sapong with Zusi in the midfield) against slower, less talented teams.
Or a ball-possession and movement lineup (Kamara-Bieler-Convey or Zusi-Bieler-Convey) against teams who bunker against KC at home.
Or a slightly modified formation (4-4-2) with Sapong and Bieler playing next to each other with Kamara and Zusi as wide midfielders for games against crafty possession teams in the champions league
Or a young/old tandem (Peterson/Saad-Dwyer/Convey) for Open Cup matches.
My best guess as the starting trio up top? Kamara (either out left or right; I prefer right), Bieler in the middle and Zusi (on the opposite flank from Kamara). Which would give Vermes the option to bring Sapong in the second half to wear down a defense or Convey/Peterson to help close out a game with possession.**And just think of how much more that gives Vermes on the bench than he had this season when he often relied on the untested Dwyer or a midfielder when chasing a result. Imagine having Sapong come on at the 60th minute of that last match against Houston after the Dynamo had dealt with Kamara-Bieler for an hour. Would've been a whole different game for sure.
There are now not only options, but entirely new looks for Vermes to test drive this year. In a few weeks, we'll see how he starts putting these pieces together. The two pre-season tournaments will certainly be instructive. It should be fascinating to watch the Desert Friendlies and the Disney Pro Soccer Classic and see who gets minutes and who gets paired together.