Brandon Wolak, KC SportsNation
The 2013 MLS season came with great success for Sporting Kansas City. With an overall league record 17-10-7 – good enough for second place in the race for the Supporters Shield – the team rallied to MLS Cup glory in front of the home supporters at a frozen Sporting Park.
Now, the 2014 edition of Sporting is tasked with defending the title while subsequently juggling a full slate of MLS, U.S. Open Cup, and Champion’s League games. Sporting Kansas City returns 10 out of 11 starters, with longtime goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen being the only starter absent. Nielsen retired following the 2013 season, and he is now the coach for Sporting affiliate Oklahoma City Energy FC. Eric Kronberg looks to replace Nielsen in goal, and Kansas City native Matt Besler was recently announced as captain.
Leading goal scorer Claudio Bieler (10 goals) is back for his sophomore season in MLS, as is assist leader Graham Zusi (8 assists). The league’s most dominant back line returns with Besler, Aurelien Collin, Chance Myers, and Seth Sinovic. It will be interesting to see how quickly cohesion develops between Kronberg and the defenders.
MLS play gets underway today (2:10) at Seattle against the Western Conference rival Sounders, who is 6-2 all-time against the Sporting. Last year at Sporting Park, the Sounders handed Sporting a 1-0 defeat.
Sporting will play its home opener on March 12 against Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul. This match will be the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The MLS home opener will take place three days later against FC Dallas.
The season outlook after the jump.
The expectations surrounding Sporting Kansas City continue to rise each season. CEO Robb Heineman has gone on record saying that the club intends on competing for any-and-all available hardware in 2014, including the Supporters’ Shield, U.S. Open Cup, MLS Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League. All told, that could mean a total of around 50 games across all competition (which isn’t even taking into consideration the World Cup games that several players will compete in as well). The gauntlet has been laid down.
Players will need to step up, and two players to keep an eye on are 17-year-old defender Erik Palmer-Brown and offseason acquisition Sal Zizzo (trade from Portland). Palmer-Brown has made a name for himself with the U17 squad, and has been linked to Italian side Juventus. For now though, he remains with SKC. Zizzo looked like a great fit in Sporting’s 4-3-3 all throughout the preseason and also looked the part of goal scorer and assist man.
Early in the season, look for Sporting to go all-in for the two matches against Cruz Azul, even at the expense of MLS victories. Expect coach Peter Vermes to play for results on the road against Seattle and at home against Dallas. Winning the Champions League would be a truly historical event, and Sporting will need to be in great form to make that kind of history. No MLS side has ever won the competition, and nothing would mean more to the ownership group, players, and Vermes than advancing to (and beyond) the semi-finals of the Champions League. Cruz Azul is about as tough a draw as could be hoped for, but Sporting has the opportunity to make things interesting with the first match of the home-and-away being at home. If Sporting can somehow get an early goal or two against Cruz Azul, it would be monumental.
The U.S. Open tournament might take a backseat to other competitions this season primarily because a birth in the 2014-2015 CONCACAF was assured when Sporting hoisted the 2013 MLS Cup. Sporting will most likely treat the U.S. Open as an opportunity for young players to gain some valuable experience.
It is reasonable to expect a healthy Sporting Kansas City to compete for the Eastern Conference, Supporters’ Shield, and the MLS Cup. Sides from Toronto, Portland, Seattle, and Houston (among others) appear to be contenders as well. Time will tell if a relatively quiet offseason for Sporting will be enough to defend the title.