Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sporting Kansas City 2015 Preview: Beating More than the Opposition

If only fixing Chance Myers was as easy...
What Happened Last Year
Matt Besler got real tired last year. So did Graham Zusi. So tired. Sporting Kansas City came into 2014 as Major League Soccer's (MLS) defending champions, only to sort of ran out of gas by season's end. New York Red Bull shoved them out in the post-season play-in and KC, presumably, settled down for a nap. KC's problems ran deeper, actually, but remembering it took some work. Injuries hammered KC in 2014. The toll hit their backline, in particular, like norovirus tearing through colons on a cruise ship. Around the time the season rolled into summer, the club's desperation for healthy central defenders was such that they threw then 17-year-old central defender Erik Palmer-Brown into a trial-by-fire that went about as well as those things generally do. Taken together, it was a massacre: Chance Myers, out for the season; Ike Opara, out for the season; Aurelien Collin missed a smaller chunk, but still missed some; regular fullback Kevin Ellis had to shift to center now and again; hell, even Palmer-Brown succumbed before the fat lady sang. The club lost players in key positions, besides, though few generated chatter like Uri Rossell's departure (see: every episode of March to the Match in which KC came up). It wasn't all an unrelenting shit-slog: forward Dom Dwyer had a great season (but, please, people, enough with his marriage) and, yeah, playoffs (wasn’t really close by the end). Still, they're pretty eager to put 2014 behind them from what I hear(d on my way to finding all the stuff above about injuries).
Final Stats: 14-13-7, 49 points, 5th in the East; 48 gf, 41 ga

What's Happened Since
Some noise, but not a lot. If only by name recognition, Roger Espinoza's return from Wigan probably caught the most headlines, but Sporting's more intriguing signing – and, arguably, departed designated player (DP) Claudio Bieler's replacement – was Hungarian striker, Krisztian Nemeth. The club rummaged around MLS for a couple more acquisitions – here, I'm thinking Jalil Anibaba and Bernardo Anor – who rate higher than spare parts (perhaps well higher based on glimpses I've caught of Anor in the 2015 preseason). The offseason saw some big losses as well, including recent-year club icon, Collin. Still, Sal Zizzo, C. J. Sapong, and Soony Saad – and, yes, Bieler – played big enough roles in KC’s set-up for 2014 to leave a few questions open. (All here...because, lazy.)

What to Expect This Year
Sporting coach Peter Vermes and U.S. Men's coach Jurgen Klinsmann recently had a spat over the latter's infamous "fitness" comments. That wasn't just interesting because few MLS coaches preach fitness like Vermes; a question lurks in there as to whether KC's high-energy style leads to fatigue, or even injury, the same way Klinsmann's regimen (allegedly) busts hammies. Anyone who hits the link above about KC putting 2014...oh, never mind, here it is again – should note Besler's comments about how KC "makes it tough on teams," because it's not gonna change. I'm not a huge fan of the pressing style (think it's ugly), but KC worked it well in 2013. And, for all their problems with injury, Sporting's goals against in 2014 fell well on the low side. Vermes does gamble a little by trusting his current defenders' parts to hold together; only Anibaba came in as a true (tested) defender. The news looks brighter news up the field. The as-yet-unmentioned Benny Feilhaber spent a lot of 2014 trying to be Rossell, which he did well enough, but he can do more to bring KC's offensive numbers up closer to goal; a more rested Zusi should help as well. At least a couple of KC's picks (Espinoza, maybe Servando Carrasco) should free up both of them to do that. Uh, already noted liking my glimpses of Anor, but have the same thoughts on Nemeth (not alone), who did a nice thing or two in here (start about 4:00 on that one). Anyway, some things to watch in there.

I think KC could very well have improved the mix on offense. The defense just has to do well enough...which makes Collin the big loss for me. Still, I bet they overcome. And finish stronger than last year...if the injuries don't bite 'em again. Man, that Vermes has cajones...

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