Sporting Bolsters Roster for 2013
Sporting Kansas City Writer, Dan Huntington
Heading into the 2012 MLS playoffs, Sporting Kansas City had experienced one of the great seasons in franchise history. They began the year with seven straight victories. They won the U.S. Open Cup for the first time since 2004 in front of a sold-out, raucous crowd on their home pitch at (the soon to be renamed) LiveStrong Sporting Park. They had been in a tight race with San Jose for the Supporters’ Shield up until the final days of the season. And they had won the Eastern Conference, clinching home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their destiny seemed to be nothing short of the MLS Cup Championship. It wasn’t to be, though. Just like in 2011, the Houston Dynamo brought an abrupt and painful end to Sporting’s once-promising season.
So what did Manager Peter Vermes and Sporting CEO Robb Heineman do? They got to work. They took an already stacked roster and actually improved it – something that is very hard to do. Let’s take a look at exactly what they did.
Sporting’s defense was the rock of this team in 2012 and was the best in all of MLS, giving up only 0.79 goals per game. On December 12, the team re-signed Matt Besler, the 2012 MLS Defender of the Year and Breakout Player of the Year, to a three-year extension. This was welcome news to Kansas City supporters as Besler was being actively pursued by several top-flight European clubs. Sporting also acquired two defenders via trade, Josh Gardner (Montreal) and Ike Opara (San Jose), and they signed free-agent Yann Sango’o. Although I do not expect these three players to make a big impact in MLS play, they do provide Sporting with good depth for non-MLS games that include international friendlies, U.S. Open Cup games, and CONCACAF Champions League games. Seth Sinovic at left back and Chance Myers at right back are workhorses for this defense and rarely take a night off so it will be difficult for the three additions to crack the starting eleven (barring an injury, of course).
The only real notable loss from the defense was Michael Harrington, whom Sporting traded to Portland in December for allocation money. Harrington was primarily a backup in recent years but filled in nicely at left back for Sinovic when called upon. Along with Nielsen, Sporting returns all four starters on the back line (Besler, Sinovic, Myers, and Aurelien Collin) in 2013 and for this reason, opponents will be hard-pressed to find the back of the net much more often than they did in 2012.
The off-season moves that received the most attention were those that affected Sporting’s midfield. Roger Espinoza, whose stellar play for Honduras during the 2012 Olympic Games in London garnered the attention of Wigan Athletic of the English Premier League, completed a move to Wigan on January 4, 2013. Rumors of Espinoza’s impending move to the EPL began almost as soon as he returned to Sporting following the conclusion of the Olympics so it did not come as a huge surprise that a deal was eventually completed.
Perhaps in anticipation of Espinoza’s departure, Sporting traded for New England’s Benny Feilhaber in December. Like Espinoza, Feilhaber has experience on the international stage, having played at various levels of U.S. Soccer. In fact, he has played on U.S. National Teams with current Sporting players C.J. Sapong, Teal Bunbury, Graham Zusi, Bobby Convey and Jacob Peterson. Although Feilhaber is not quite the attacking player that Espinoza is on the offensive end (as evidenced by his one goal and two assists in 2012 with the Revs), he is still a good distributor of the ball and just as physical. He is the kind of midfielder that should thrive in Vermes’ system.
Speaking of Graham Zusi, he recently enjoyed a training stint with EPL-side West Ham United. By all accounts, the Hammers were very impressed with what they saw out of Zusi and may be interested in pursuing him for a more permanent role with the squad. This is a situation to keep your eye on over the summer.
The other significant move that did not get nearly the level of attention that the Espinoza departure received but may be just as impactful was the release of Julio Cesar. Cesar is one of those players that you don’t really notice when he is out there, but when he is not out there, it’s noticeable. Cesar played in primarily a defensive midfield role in Peter Vermes’ system so the stat sheet did not always tell the whole story on how important Cesar was to controlling the midfield. Despite his lack of flare on the offensive end, he did have, perhaps, one of Sporting’s most impressive goals in 2012 when he volleyed in a Graham Zusi corner straight out of the air and into the top of the net against Toronto. Ironically, he ended up signing on with that same Toronto squad following his release from Kansas City.
Despite the losses of Espinoza and Cesar, Sporting will still field one of the best midfields in the league with Zusi, Feilhaber, Kei Kamara, and some combination of Bobby Convey/Oriol Rosell/Paulo Nagamura/Jacob Peterson. Kamara led the team with 11 goals so if he can replicate that kind of production in 2013, that would bode well for this team. Also, Rosell could be a sleeper at midfield as acquitted himself very well late in the year.
The one area where Sporting struggled to even be average in 2012 was at forward and the ability (or lack thereof) to put the ball in the back of the net. Sporting ranked seventh out of ten in the Eastern Conference and 12th overall in goals scored (42). Teal Bunbury got off to a bit of a slow start, not scoring until the 10th game of the season, when he scored twice against Colorado. On August 26, Bunbury tore his ACL against New York and was done for the season. C.J. Sapong, the 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year, tallied nine goals on the year but was inconsistent. Some reports have come out in recent days that Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger may be interested in making a move for Sapong, with one outlet reporting that a transfer fee has already been agreed to between Sporting and Arsenal. If this does in fact come to fruition, it would be a major blow to the depth of Sporting’s front line. With that in mind, enter the club’s newest Designated Player: Claudio Bieler.
Claudio Bieler signed with Sporting on December 18. Although you have probably never heard of him, Bieler’s goal-scoring prowess is well-documented during his time in South America, primarily with LDU Quito (Ecuador). His goal scoring record in league play is as follows: 13 goals in 2008; 22 goals in 2009; 8 goals in 2010 (in Argentina); 5 goals in 2011; and 20 goals in 2012. This is certainly production that Sporting could use, especially with Bunbury out still rehabbing his knee. It is still to be determined how Bieler adapts to MLS, but by all accounts, he is well-suited for the physical style of play that he is about to experience. If he and Sapong (assuming C.J. is still with Sporting) can form some good chemistry early on, the Sporting attack could be a very formidable one for any defense.
Behind the three men noted above, there is not a lot of experience at forward. Both Soony Saad and last year’s first-round draft pick, Dom Dwyer saw limited action in MLS play last year. Saad saw more action of the two, getting two starts. Dwyer saw only four minutes of MLS action in 2012 but played in a couple international friendlies and in one U.S. Open Cup match. I would expect them to play a similar role in 2013 – lots of minutes in non-MLS matches but I don’t expect much from either in league play. On a personal aside, I would like to see Sporting take an MLS-ready forward in this year’s Superdraft to give the team a little bit more depth at this position.
The way I see it, there are three questions that are going to determine Sporting’s success in 2013. First, can the defense replicate its 2012 performance? It will be difficult to post another 0.79 goals against average and 15 clean sheets. However, with all the starters returning, this is not an unreachable goal. Second, will the midfield be able to control the action with the loss of Espinoza and Cesar? I think Feilhaber is a suitable replacement for Espinoza in terms of being able to control and distribute the ball. However, I’m not sure there is a dominant defensive midfielder like Cesar on this roster so that could put a little more pressure on the defense. And finally, how will Claudio Bieler adapt to MLS and can he get to double-digits in goals? If he can, and I think he will, I believe Sporting will be the odds-on favorite to win the Eastern Conference for the third consecutive year. My prediction: Sporting ends up with a 16-7-11 record (59 points) and edges the Houston Dynamo by one point to win the East.
So what are your views on for the Sporting season will go? Leave comments below.