The Runner Sports

MLS 20 In 20: Sporting KC

Sporting KC is one of the most consistent MLS clubs in history, having qualified for the playoffs fourteen times including each of the last five years.  They have also piled up trophies, including two MLS Cups, one Supporters’ Shield, three Open Cups and a handful of conference championships.  All of this winning has brought Sporting KC one of the most rabid followings in the league, one that often propel them to a dominant home record.  This season is shaping up to be an interesting one in Kansas City, so let’s dive right in:

Key Additions:

D Lawrence Olum (Last Club: Kedah FA)

M Justin Mapp (LC: Montreal Impact)

M Brad Davis (LC: Houston)

F Daniel Salloi (Homegrown)

D Nuno Andre Coelho (LC: Balıkesirspor)

Sporting KC focused their spending this offseason more on maintenance of the roster opposed to bringing in high-priced talent.  Keep in mind that this franchise is starting up a brand new minor league team, the Swope Park Rangers, so it is likely that more resources were devoted to getting that team off the ground this offseason.

Justin Mapp comes to Sporting KC as the first free agent signing in league history and he brings over a decade of MLS experience to the table.  It is likely that Sporting KC uses him and Brad Davis in a platoon role on the wing this season.  While both are left-sided players, manager Peter Vermes has experimented using them and right winger Graham Zusi as inverted wingers, a tactical variance from the traditional KC setup.

“I think with both those guys you can flip-flop them,” Vermes said. “I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think you can play them in both depending on the opponent and if you want wide service or you want to have them cut inside you have both opportunities.”

To address the hole in the center of defense, Sporting KC went the route of adding the equivalent of minor league contracts to fill the void.  Both Lawrence Olum and Nuno Andre Coelho are veteran players who should be steady and bring quality to the squad for the free nature of their transfers combined with the likely low wage (MLS doesn’t release their wages until the next season).  Coelho, probably the favorite to win the job, was a spot starter for 4th best Portuguese league club Braga before moving to Turkey last year. He is a big rangy center defender who based on his athletic profile could blend well with the less physical, more tactical Matt Besler.

Key Subtractions:

D Jalil Anibaba

F Krisztian Nemeth

D Erik Palmer-Brown 

Amobi Okugo 

Krisztian Nemeth is a huge loss for Sporting KC as he was at times capable of carrying the scoring load and was a penned in starter on the wing/second striker.  In his first season for Sporting KC, Nemeth had sixteen goals and seven assists across every competition.  It hurts that Sporting and MLS lose the forward as he is entering his prime because this is the type of player who the league should be looking to grow around, not EPL vets like Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard.

The other losses are not terribly impactful as Anibaba was only a spot starter.  With Seth Sinovic ready to take a larger full-time role at left back, Anibaba didn’t need to be kept around.

Palmer-Brown is an interesting case as he was loaned out to FC Porto.  Vermes speaking on Extra Time Radio earlier in the offseason was excited about the possibility of Palmer-Brown gaining valuable experience abroad as he was unlikely to figure into the Sporting KC first team plans this season anyway.  It will be interesting to see if Palmer-Brown impresses Porto enough to turn that short-term loan into an expensive transfer in the future.

 

2016 Storylines:

Who fills the void left from Nemeth’s departure:

While Sporting KC didn’t exactly struggle for goals last season, they were by no means the most prolific scoring outfit.  Nemeth was integral to the attack as he took pressure off lead striker Dom Dwyer and was also played on the wing.  His replacements have never been known for their goal scoring chops so this leads one to wonder where the goals are going to come from.  Is Dwyer going to be able to increase his already impressive seventeen goals across all competitions?  Does Graham Zusi have to contribute more on the scoring front?  Finding those goals will be critical for Sporting KC as their defense doesn’t look to have taken any steps forward.

Can Benny Feilhaber repeat 2015 performance:

In 2015, Benny Feilhaber enjoyed his best season as a professional.  He scored ten goals and notched fifteen league assists, culminating in being named one of the three finalists for the MVP.  He was masterful as the hub and focus of the Sporting KC attack from midfield.

The question is, can Feilhaber, who is 31, carry a similar or even greater offensive load?  Considering Nemeth’s departure, Sporting needs everyone to contribute at the same or at an even greater level this season to be considered a viable playoff team.  Last season they only just qualified for the playoffs, coming in sixth position in the western conference.

Benny will need to repeat if Sporting KC is to make the playoffs.

Who starts at center back:

As mentioned in the additions section, there is a huge question mark as to who will start next to Besler in center defense.  Coelho, the projected starter, had a solid preseason and even scored in the finale, but how will he hold up in his first season in MLS.  There is depth available to Sporting KC, but do any of the options possess the quality to make a tangible difference?

 

2016 Reasonable Expectations:

The very highest ceiling I see Sporting KC possessing is back-end of the playoffs.  With that said, I don’t think they were able to address the hole left by Nemeth and if Feilhaber regresses even in the slightest, Sporting will be in trouble.

I’m calling for KC to come in seventh, just outside of the playoff picture.  Seeing as management values the Open Cup so highly, this might be the competition they make noise in.

 

Mainstream Sport Equivalent:

The most easily comparable franchise is the St. Louis Cardinals.  Both are from middle America and possess rabid fan bases that consistently pack their stadiums.  St. Louis has a long tradition of success but are a tier down from the level of New York.  Sporting KC has a similar outstanding tradition, yet historically they fall behind L.A. and D.C. United.

As far as on-field play, both franchises have a deep well of unknown players that are made into serviceable cogs to good teams.  Every year people think that both franchises will fall and almost without exception they exceed expectations.  This year St. Louis are thought to take a step back and cede control of the division to the Cubs and Sporting might step back as well.  It wouldn’t be shocking if both overcome their various obstacles and turn in winning seasons.

John Harbeck

Ohio sports and all things soccer.If you like my writing follow me @JHarbeck5 on twitter

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