Though expectations are sky-high for Sporting KC heading into the 2012 season, they’re basically the exact same squad as last year, maybe even a tad weaker.
Most MLS pundits rank Sporting as one of the favorites in the league heading into their first game March 10th at DC United. And it kinda makes sense on paper considering they won the East last year and return every starter from the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Houston Dynamo.
Plus the club has added a few veteran players – like Bobby Convey to replace Omar Bravo – and Paulo Nagamura to fill the middle where Davy Arnaud once roamed.
But is that enough?
While Convey will almost certainly be a starter, he’s scored only three league goals over the last three seasons, as compared with Bravo’s 9 in his one year here. And Nagamura, who probably won’t be a starter anyway, has been riding a wave of injury problems for several seasons after he was named an all-star in 2009.
So is it realistic to expect this KC team to replicate the surprisingly successful 2011 season that saw the squad go from worst to first after enduring a three month road trip before their stadium opened last June? Once LIVESTRONG did open its doors, Sporting enjoyed a long stretch of home games that allowed the team to find its rhythm and round into form at the right time.
I know it sounds crazy, but the back-loaded home schedule actually may have been an advantage for Sporting last season, since it was coupled with the unprecedented enthusiasm and support surrounding the new brand and the opening of the stadium.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the young nucleus of this team: Graham Zusi as the string-puller and cultured set piece foot; Teal Bunbury and CJ Sapong as the athletic, physical strikers; Kei Kamara as the crafty winger; Chance Myers as the quick, attacking back; and Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin as the anchors to it all.
Plus coach Peter Vermes has proven over the last few seasons that he is a master talent evaluator, at least when it comes to the draft. So any criticism must be reserved on first rounder Dom Dwyer and second round pick Cyprian Hedrick.
But while other teams have gone out and signed designated players, Sporting has done fairly little besides tread water.
Where is this mystery Spanish attacking midfielder DP that we’ve been hearing about for so long via Robb Heinemann’s Twitter account?
Unless a couple of unproven players who are already on the roster have breakout seasons ala Zusi and Besler, or a mid-season acquisition comes in and can actually make an impact in a small window of time (remember Jeferson?), Sporting could be a few puzzle pieces short of their stated goal – an MLS Championship.
That said, the players showed up to camp ready to work and in the best shape they’ve ever been. And as confident as they’ve ever been.
"We’re further along and we’ve already we’ve already established ourselves with our style of play," said Besler when asked about the differences between last year and this year. "We already know what we want to do and how our team can succeed so we already have that base and we’re just building off that."
And in a recent conversation with Sporting media guru Kurt Austin, goalkeeper and newly minted team captain Jimmy Nielsen didn’t mince his words. "It’s a great team and we should have the ambition to go for the MLS Cup," said Nielsen. "I believe that if we keep doing things like we are now, we’ll be one of the teams that is fighting for the MLS Cup and that should be the goal for us. We went to the conference final last year and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be reaching for the final this year."
Unfortunatelly, absent a big breakout or a blockbuster signing, I do see a reason why Sporting may struggle to match its 2011 dream season.