If it feels like the 2015 MLS season just ended, that’s because it did four weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio. Already, though, preparation for the 2016 season is set begin with Sporting Kansas City making its way to Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 23 for the Desert Diamond Cup.
The offseason has already been busy for Sporting KC, which is coming off an up-and-down season where it captured the U.S. Open Cup title but fell to Portland in the knockout round of the playoffs.
Here are three questions for Sporting KC worth examining ahead of the 2016 season:
Can Sporting KC revive its wide play?
For as unpredictable as the high press can be at times, Sporting KC was primarily a one-trick pony last season. The club did most of its damage down the central channel, with Benny Feilhaber leading the way in a monster season. At first glance, things weren’t so bad with Krisztian Nemeth accounting for 10 goals and six assists in league play. But as it’s been said numerous times on this blog, Nemeth (and Zusi) is not a traditional wide player. He’s a striker at heart, and it showed in his game. He, like Marcel de Jong, tended to drift toward the middle of the field, leaving space up and down the flank. While that’s not a huge issue for the winger position because it’s so high up the field, it left a void in Sporting KC’s game. Teams would routinely attempt to cause a log jam in the middle of the field. With little presence out wide, and no height to get on the end of crosses, that made Sporting KC incredible predictable in the attack. However, the addition of Justin Mapp and Brad Davis could help revive the team’s mindset on the attack. Bernardo Anor is another name that could make a difference in this area. It’s not a particularly pacey trio, but they do have the capabilities to stretch the field and free up space for players like Dom Dwyer and Feilhaber in the middle of the pitch.
Will a possible training overhaul squash the injury bug and help avoid the late-season collapse?
Injuries have dampened Sporting KC’s success the past two seasons. While most have been deemed “freak” injuries by the coaching staff, Peter Vermes has taken the setbacks seriously, and it could inspire change moving forward. The biggest difference could come in practice next season, where some believed players were being pushed too hard. The result appears to be an overhaul in the practice format. Vermes shifted practice times to earlier in the day during the summer to avoid the Midwest heat as much as possible. The upcoming change appears to be much more detailed, though, as Sporting KC looks for ways to avoid nagging injuries but still maximize training time. This could be huge for the second half of the season, where Sporting KC has withered the last two seasons heading toward the playoffs. With an analytical mind like Vermes at the helm of it all, expect Sporting KC to maintain “Sporting Fit” while reinvigorating how it goes about its business leading up to match day.
Can Zusi rediscover his pre-World Cup form?
It was a quiet year for Graham Zusi in 2015, and not just by his own standards. The seven-year veteran had to clear two injury hurdles in the first three months of the season, and then had to battle back from a significant head injury. The tough start ended up in a disappointing season for the talented winger, with Zusi tallying two goals and five assists in less than 2,000 minutes for the first time since the 2010 season. Zusi is still an elite player in MLS, but his biggest hang-up has been an identity issue. Is he a forward? Is he a midfielder? Where does he fit? These questions will linger into the 2016 season, but expect Zusi to bounce back in a major way as he looks to return to form at both the club and national team levels.