With the introductions out of the way, and all the pent up excitement you have to read about soccer, let’s get you informed about the team. It has been some time since KCSportsNation has written about soccer or Sporting, so let’s get up to speed on the state of the club.
If you are from Kansas City, you live in a part of the country that within soccer circles is becoming a destination. Fans travel from other cities specifically to see the stadium and team. Players looking for a new club rave about the stadium, training facilities, locker rooms and ownership. The US National Team loves the city and the rabid support that they are given when they play important games in Kansas City. In fact it was just announced this week that Kansas City will host a US Men’s National Team game on Saturday May, 28 against Bolivia. Hosting national team games is becoming an annual tradition for Kansas City, yet for many cities it can be a rare occurrence. We should be proud of this honor as a city.
Every sports franchise starts with their ownership. Great owners provide the resources for the professionals to do their job and poor owners stick their noses in where they shouldn’t. If you follow the NFL, and who doesn’t, you know the types: think Robert Kraft leading the Patriots instead of Dan Snyder “leading” the Redskins. Thankfully Sporting is owned by a group of men that know how to let the experts make decisions and provide the necessary resources when needed. They are a group of local businessmen led by Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig of Cerner fame. Robb Heineman is the “out in front” owner, similar in a way to Mark Cuban in the NBA, that engages the fan base through social media and in the stands during games. There are two others that are more quiet in Greg Maday and Pat Curran. These five men purchased the franchise from the Hunt family in 2006 and with their innovative ideas have transformed the team from a laughing stock both within MLS and in Kansas City to a recognized brand and destination for soccer players and fans alike.
The owners have placed the responsibility of the team in Peter Vermes’ hands. Vermes acts as the game day manager as well as the technical director (soccer speak for general manager). He is ultimately in charge of all aspects of Sporting’s performance all the way down to the youth teams that bear the Sporting name and have generated many successful players that have advanced to the senior team. Vermes was a fine player in his younger days highlighted by appearances in the 1990 World Cup for the USA and a key member of the Kansas City Wizards when they won the MLS championship in 2000. He moved into coaching after his playing days and quickly became the leader of the new organization when it transformed from the Wizards into Sporting Kansas City, starting as technical director in 2006 and taking over the manager duties in 2009.
Supporting Vermes in guiding one of the most successful franchises in MLS is a group of highly experienced staff. Assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, himself a member of the Wizards for most of his career including the 2000 championship side, is being groomed to be a future head coach. Another assistant coach is Zoran Savic who gained local fame in the 1980s as a key member of the Kansas City Comets. An invaluable addition was made in early 2016 when Brian Bliss joined the organization as director of player personnel. Bliss has vast experience in all levels of soccer having played for the US National Team, played in MLS – including Kansas City, was the assistant coach with the Wizards for seven years – winning two trophies, and finally spending the last six years as the leader of the Columbus Crew where he led them to an MLS championship.
In all, one can see why Sporting is such a successful club with a committed local ownership group backed by one of the most experienced and cohesive coaching staffs in the league. And to wrap a big bow on things five years ago a state of the art stadium was built to entice fans to push the team to victory. So far, it is working. After 17 years of up and down performances, albeit earning two highly regarded trophies, the past four seasons have seen a rise in success on and off the field that is unprecedented.
And now on to the men that make it happen, the players. Out of a squad of 23 players we have chosen to highlight a few mainstays. In time we will share more details about the rest of the squad as they make contributions on the field.
- Matt Besler – born and raised in Overland Park, KS, Besler is the definition of Midwest soccer. He won state championships at Blue Valley before moving on to Notre Dame where he was the National college Player of the Year in 2008. He has been a starter for the team since early in his rookie year and an anchor at center defense with various partners beside him. His strong performance has led to the three trophies that the team has earned over the past four seasons. In 2013, his play was rewarded with a call-up to the US National Team and a year later he was a key member of the 2014 World Cup squad. In short, Matt Besler is Sporting Kansas City and will go down as one of the clubs all-time greats. Unfortunately, he is doubtful to play tomorrow with a concussion.
- Graham Zusi – after a successful college career at Maryland that culminated in the 2008 National Championship, he was, like Besler, drafted in 2009. Zusi, an attacking midfielder that can play both on the wing and in the middle, was a fringe starter and substitute until 2011 when he had a breakout year in the new stadium with five goals and nine assists. His play improved over the next two years and he became a regular call-up for the US National Team, where he was also a member of the 2014 World Cup squad playing in all four games. The success of Sporting over the past few years rests on the foundation of Besler and Zusi.
- Benny Feilhaber – after two successful years as a walk-on at UCLA and great performances in youth national team tournaments, he chose to leave the US and signed with Hamburg in Germany. Over the next three years he played in Germany, England and Denmark, which earned him a call-up to the U.S. National Team in 2007. His most impactful highlight for most fans was a spectacular volley that he scored against archrival Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup Final. Feilhaber moved to MLS with the New England Revolution in 2009, but the team did not value him when his contract expired so he joined Sporting in 2013 and was a focal point of the midfield that won MLS Cup in 2013. As the primary attacking midfielder, he provides excellent field vision and passing abilities, but as he has proven many times he has a devastating long distance shot to keep goalkeepers on their toes any time he has the ball.
- Dom Dwyer – an Englishman whose career got off to a slow start in developmental programs in England followed by small college success in the U.S., eventually led to him being drafted by Sporting in 2012. After limited action that year, he was loaned to a lower division team (similar to being sent to AAA in baseball) in Orlando where he proceeded to score 16 goals in a few short months. Sporting recalled Dwyer to the team in the summer of 2013, where he became a reserve forward. He broke out in 2014 with 24 goals and has never looked back as the main striker for the team. In 2015, he married Sydney Leroux of the U.S. Women’s National Team fame, and for this Dwyer is a very lucky man.
- Brad Davis – prior to the 2016 season Sporting traded for Davis from the Houston Dynamo, where he has a storied career, as well as with the U.S. National Team. At 34, his best days are likely behind him, but he provides great depth in the attacking midfield and his ability to supply dangerous crosses will be valuable for the likes of Dwyer. Fans were torn at the news of him joining the team as he was one of their most hated rivals, having once yelled “F@#& YOU!” at our local fans during a heated playoff game. After scoring the winning goal late in the last home game, his first goal in Sporting Blue, the fans have begun to warm up to Davis.
- Roger Espinoza – after a solid college career at Ohio State, Sporting took a chance on the pesky midfielder from Honduras. His relentless pursuit of the ball is vital to the team in allowing Zusi, Feilhaber, Dwyer and others to focus on the offensive attack. You won’t hear his name much in the headlines, but he is a very important member of the team. He left Sporting in 2012 to join Wigan of the English Premier League, where he famously was a part of the smaller club defeating giants Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup. He returned to Sporting in 2015 and should be a rock in defensive midfield for years to come.
- Tim Melia – bounced around lower divisions in the U.S. before being a member of two teams in MLS as a backup keeper. Sporting Kansas City signed him in 2015 to back up a newly signed foreign starter in goal. As luck would have it, that newly signed keeper was not good at all, and Melia soon took over starting duties in 2015. He was named the 2015 Comeback Player of the Year in MLS for his stellar play and appears to be entrenched as the man between the sticks.
There are many other key contributors to the team that have not been mentioned, but in most cases those players rotate between being starters and substitutes to keep the team fresh over the long MLS season.
The MLS season is very long. It begins in early March and the Championship game is played the weekend after Thanksgiving, each December. Teams play 34 games as well as compete in various tournaments including the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which is a single-elimination tournament that includes professional teams from all levels within the United States. Their games can be viewed locally on Channel 38 The Spot, but with their recent success they are often displayed nationally on ESPN and FoxSports1. Despite the access via television, it is highly recommended that you take in soccer live, where you can see the movement and strategy off of the ball that makes the game so enjoyable.
In their history the Wizards and Sporting have accumulated five major trophies – the MLS Championship (2000, 2013) and the U.S. Open Cup (2004, 2012, 2015). The last three have all been won on penalty kick shootouts, which is equally amazing and agonizing and a strange way to decide a winner. Years have been taken off of the life expectancy of many fans from the stress of those three penalty shootouts. Yet, the process is sort of odd. Imagine the Super Bowl being tied after overtime so to decide a winner the kickers start attempting field goals until someone misses!
In the coming weeks we will be providing game recaps each week as well as weaving in the history and fame of the club. As always feel free to send comments to @benc1357 or just to chat about sports in general. Make sure to catch the game this weekend against our Western Conference rivals Real Salt Lake, Saturday at 7:30PM. Sporting defeated RSL in the 2013 MLS Cup Final and since then the matchups have been physical and exciting to watch. And if you’re lucky enough to have a ticket maybe we’ll see you in the Cauldron.
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