From a team standpoint, there was no better coming-of-age story in MLS in 2011 than Sporting Kansas City . The young team endured a rough start to the 2011 season and, despite fielding a lineup filled with first and second-year starters, eventually grew up and played some of the best soccer in MLS in the second half of the season.
Kansas City's inexperience eventually caught up with them in the playoffs, and a loss in the Eastern Conference final cut their dream run short. That defeat wasn't a useless one, though. The experience of that loss, coupled with the successes of last season, should help Sporting KC mature as they head into 2012 as a team expected to win the Eastern Conference.
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That's right. Expected. Yes, the New York Red Bulls get more publicity, and Houston is the returning Eastern Conference champion, but Sporting KC heads into the new season as the strongest, most well-balanced team and the most likely squad to halt the Western Conference's domination of the MLS Cup (West teams have won eight of the past 10 titles).
A half-dozen KC players come in off breakout seasons, and all are expected to keep improving. You can start with playmaker Graham Zusi, who was one of the most improved players in MLS. His emergence as a standout attacking midfielder helped the Sporting KC offense go from average to one of the strongest in the league (KC tied for second in MLS in goals scored), even earning him a US national team call-up.
Zusi is vital to Sporting KC's 4-3-3 formation, but the evolution of the team's forwards really turned the attack into a force. MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong is one of the most exciting striker prospects in MLS, combining size, speed and strength to serve as the perfect weapon to deploy alongside Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara. Sapong's emergence also made it easy for Sporting KC to part ways with Mexican striker Omar Bravo.
KC isn't likely to miss Bravo too much. Not with Bunbury and Kamara joining Sapong on the starting forward line, and not with promising youngsters Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer providing depth.
The evolution of the KC defense was just as impressive, with fullbacks Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic playing well above expectations, and Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin emerging as one of the better centerback tandems in MLS. That back four will need to continue improving if Sporting is to be a real threat to the Western Conference powers in the race for the Supporters Shield.
KC's nucleus of improving young talent has given the team a strong foundation at a relatively low cost, which gave the team the freedom to bring in some quality veteran options in defensive midfield and on the wings. New additions Paulo Nagamura, Jordan Harvey and Bobby Convey provide experience, toughness and, in the case of Convey, a dangerous left-footed threat. Nagamura gives KC a bulldog defensive midfielder to push Roger Espinoza and converted centerback Julio Cesar, while Convey and Harvey should help provide more width and service.
Sporting KC's depth will be put to the test this year as the team competes in the CONCACAF Champions League, and the young squad will also have to contend with the pressure of expectations. They have all the pieces in place to get to the MLS Cup final, and after falling just short in 2011, the team that came of age last season stands poised to take the next step in its evolution. A step that could propel Sporting Kansas City to the club's first championship in a dozen years.
2012 SPORTING KANSAS CITY TEAM OUTLOOK
TOP PLAYERS : Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler
KEY ADDITIONS : Paulo Nagamura, Bobby Convey, Jacob Peterson, Dom Dwyer
KEY LOSSES : Omar Bravo, Davy Arnaud, Jeferson, Milos Stojcev, Shavar Thomas, Craig Rocastle
MUST HAVE A BIG YEAR : Teal Bunbury. The US Under-23 national team striker had an up-and-down sophomore campaign, but with Omar Bravo back in Mexico, Bunbury will be called on to lead the forward line. He needs to be the double-digit goal scorer he was expected to be when he was drafted in 2010.
BREAKOUT PLAYER TO WATCH : Soony Saad. The 19-year-old striker barely saw time after leaving college as a star freshman and landing in MLS after failed trials in Europe, but with a season of apprenticeship under his belt, Saad could emerge as a key bench option. He'll have to battle plenty of others, including rookie Dom Dwyer, but Saad is one to watch.
BIGGEST QUESTION : Can the youngsters do it again? Zusi, Besler, Sapong, Myers and Sinovic all had breakout seasons in 2011. Sporting KC will need them all to match or improve on those seasons if Sporting is going to stay on top of the Eastern Conference. Improved depth gives KC cover at most spots, though Zusi would be tougher to replace than most.
OUTLOOK : If there is a team in the Eastern Conference with the quality and depth to challenge Los Angeles, Seattle and Real Salt Lake as the top teams in MLS, it's Sporting KC. Vermes has done a very good job of not only building a balanced lineup, he has also compiled depth at a variety of positions. The lessons learned in last year's playoffs, coupled with another year of experience for a relatively young squad, should help Sporting win the East again, and potentially challenge for multiple trophies.