Kansas City, KS (SportsNetwork.com) - The troubling scenario for reigning
champions of a professional sports league is that there is no room for
improvement, and in a league with so much parity, the likelihood of reaching
the same pinnacle of success in successive seasons is quite slim.
There have been just three repeat winners of MLS Cup in the league's 18-year
history, and after clinching the title in dramatic fashion in 2013, Sporting
Kansas City is hoping to become the fourth.
Sporting enjoyed an extraordinary season last term, finishing second in the
Eastern Conference just one point back of Red Bull New York in the race for
the Supporters' Shield and edging Real Salt Lake, on home soil, in penalties
for the postseason crown.
It has a been a rather prolific stretch for Sporting Kansas City in recent
seasons as last year's MLS Cup achievement marked the second consecutive
campaign with a trophy after the club also claimed the U.S. Open Cup title in
Participating in an additional competition (CONCACAF Champions League) will
grant Sporting with an extra opportunity to add to its trophy cabinet in 2014,
and with minimal turnover to the roster, head coach Peter Vermes believes his
side is well-positioned to do just that.
"I do like the group that we have," Vermes told MLSsoccer.com during the
offseason. "It never means that it's set, by any means. But I also think, with
the fact that we are playing the competitions we're in, and how fast we have
to get ready for Champions League, we need to have consistency in our group. I
think that's an important aspect going forward."
Competing in the CONCACAF Champions League has forced Sporting to accelerate
its preseason preparation, but Vermes is confident that roster continuity can
help Kansas City overcome any potential pitfalls.
"The first two days are normally a little rusty, but the guys are further
ahead than normal," Vermes said after a training session early on in
preseason. "Much of that has to do with us returning a consistent group of
players from last year's squad that understand the challenges and expectations
ahead of them."
According to Dom Dwyer, Sporting's ability to bring the vast majority of its
title-winning side back for another year has raised expectations, and the
midfielder is optimistic that the club can make it three consecutive years
with a trophy following a seven-year silverware drought.
"Last year it was MLS Cup," Dwyer told reporters prior to leaving for
preseason camp. "This year it's got to be MLS Cup and Open Cup and Champions
League as well. You've always got to be optimistic, and I really believe we
can do all that."
The most glaring omission from Sporting's preseason preparations has been
striker Teal Bunbury, who was dealt to the New England Revolution in February.
But the club did manage to bring in some additional firepower during the
offseason, signing winger Sal Zizzo in trade with the Portland Timbers. The
26-year-old already has earned rave reviews from his head coach.
"He's going to fit into the way we play really well, and I'm not even talking
about the goals," Vermes said after a preseason training session. "He's an
exceptional winger. He's got a great attitude. He's got a good mind for the
game, and he's definitely going to be a good addition to our team."
Zizzo joins a stable of supreme attacking talent at Vermes' disposal. Strikers
C.J. Sapong and Claudio Bieler should be the beneficiaries of some exceptional
service from Graham Zusi, Benny Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura, and Sporting
also boasts some supplementary attackers like Dwyer and Soony Saad to provide
cover for the club's first-choice forwards.
Scoring at will has become a luxury for Sporting given the club's stout
defensive unit, which yielded an MLS-low 30 goals in 34 regular season games.
Kansas City will be without star goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen following the Dane's
retirement at the conclusion of last season, but the acquisition of Andy
Gruenebaum and the continuity of keeping Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Aurelien
Collin and Chance Myers together bodes well for Sporting's outlook in 2014.
ADDITIONS: Andy Gruenebaum (GK), Sal Zizzo (M).
LOSSES: Teal Bunbury (F), Jimmy Nielsen (GK).
OUTLOOK: Continuity has been the name of the game for Sporting following its
MLS Cup triumph. Bringing in only a few pieces has afforded Vermes the luxury
of getting a head start on preparations for the new season as the vast
majority of his players are already accustomed to playing with each other. Of
course, continuity means little if talent is absent, which it is not in Kansas
City. Sporting is one of the most well-balanced sides in MLS, possessing
speed, tenacity, organization and passing range all over the pitch. While it's
unusual for teams to take home multiple trophies in a given season, expect
Sporting to contend on all fronts.
The Sports Network