The Tweet and Lowdown:
SKC may just be the sleeper pick to pace the Eastern Conference if they can weather an early road trip and continue building on last season.
Setting the Scene:
For the former Wizards, 2010 was a season of extremes spent yo-yoing between debilitating lows (nine-game winless streak and missing the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second straight season) and epic highs (a victory against Manchester United and a thrilling run back into the playoff picture).
Though the team embarked on an 8-5-3 run to finish the regular season, inconsistent scoring production and a defense that struggled with conceding soft goals kept manager Peter Vermes’ squad from the playoffs in his first full season at the helm.
Now, after an offseason rife with organizational change, newly christened Sporting Kansas City hope they have addressed their shortcomings before a 2011 season that kicks off with much higher expectations than years past.
[inline_node:323595]Sporting continued adding attacking verve to their emerging young core in the offseason, as Omar Bravo (at right) officially joined the team and C.J. Sapong was picked up in the first round of the SuperDraft. Key contributor Michael Harrington was also resigned while veteran stalwarts Jimmy Conrad and Josh Wolff left via the inaugural Re-Entry Draft.
All in all, Kansas City have a solid young core and key veteran cogs but questions remain about whether Vermes has done enough to bolster the center of defense – though those doubts could still be addressed until the end of the transfer window on April 15.
Players In: Omar Bravo (Chivas de Guadalajara, Mexico), Kevin Ellis (Home Grown signing), Mike Jones (SIU Edwardsville), Scott Lorenz (NSC Minnesota Stars, NASL), C.J. Sapong (James Madison Univ.), Luke Sassano (LA Galaxy, acquired via trade for rights to Frankie Hejduk), Konrad Warzycha (Ohio State)
Players Out: Jamar Beasley (Missouri Comets, MISL), Sunil Chhetri (waived), Jimmy Conrad (Chivas USA), Frankie Hejduk (LA Galaxy, acquired in Re-Entry draft and rights traded for Sassano), Zoltan Hercegfalvi (loan expired), Aaron Hohlbein (Fort Lauderdale Strikers, NASL), Jack Jewsbury (traded to Portland), Nikos Kounenakis (waived), Jonathan Leathers (Vancouver via Expansion Draft)
Star Attraction: Omar Bravo
Teal Bunbury will get plenty of the spotlight in 2011 if he continues his rapid rise up the rungs of the US soccer ladder, but Bravo’s ability to adapt to the rigors of an MLS regular season could be the difference between Sporting contending for an Eastern Conference title or fading away down the stretch.
Goal-scoring has been an issue for Kansas City for the last two years, and Bravo – with his DP money and international pedigree – was brought in to pull the strings in an effort to directly address that. If the Guadalajara legend can stay healthy and productive, the club will have a prime box office draw as well as a creative and potent presence to guide the attack.
[inline_node:330078]Unsung Hero: Craig Rocastle
One of the main reasons Jewsbury became expendable this preseason was the emergence of Rocastle over the second half of 2010 as an ideal holding midfielder in Kansas City’s high-pressure system.
Rocastle’s ability to shut off passing lanes, win individual battles and provide accurate outlet passes helped Sporting transition from defense to counterattack in a split second. His only noticeable weakness was his fitness over 90 minutes, which appears to have been addressed via an offseason spent training and playing with Grenada.
Ready for Primetime: Matt Besler
With no Conrad around to anchor the back line, Besler enters 2011 knowing this season could be a jumping point for his career and overall development as a player.
After appearing in 28 games and making 26 starts as a rookie in 2009, the Kansas City native found his opportunities much more limited last season, logging only 12 appearances. Besler spent the offseason preparing his body for the stress of playing a full season in the back and has also impressed so far with his improved approach to the game.
Sporting haven’t made any impact signings in the center of defense yet either, leaving Besler to prove he deserves to help put the defensive misgivings of 2010 behind the club.
Storylines to Watch:
Vermes and his players continue to pooh-pooh the difficulty of starting the regular season with 10 games on the road, but the reality is that the stretch will play a huge role in defining the team’s season.
If Sporting can get somewhere around 15 points out of that stretch, they can lean on a home-heavy second half at their brand new stadium to help make up any gaps in the league table. Reinforcing the growing belief within the club even more is the fact that 2011 will be Year 2 in Vermes’ preferred pressing and counterattacking style of play.
Kansas City seemed to have settled into a rhythm and tactical understanding from July forward last season, and the squad’s ability to pick up where it left off will be integral to returning the club to the playoff field.
What He Said:
“We’re trying to pick up where we left off last year. I’m sure there will be some tweaks here and there in how we play, but the basic idea of who we are isn’t going to change. I think that’s a good thing. We have to stick to what makes us good and do that from the very beginning.”
– Captain Davy Arnaud
If Everything Goes Right:
Simply put, making the MLS Cup Playoffs is the minimum requirement this season in Kansas City. Two years of inconsistent results and Novembers spent watching other clubs compete for MLS Cup have left Sporting fans desperate for a change in fortunes, and the ownership group seems to have nearly all the pieces in place to provide that.
The squad’s impressive run of form to end last season provided momentum heading into 2011, and a new stadium and identity should help rally the community around the cause.
Joining the expanded playoff field and contending with New York for the Eastern Conference title should be within Kansas City’s grasp. Whether Sporting can actually reach those goals remains to be seen.
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