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PREVIEW: Defending champ Sporting KC is still potent
by Ridge Mahoney, March 7th, 2014 3:55PM

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TAGS:  mls, sporting kansas city

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[MLS 2014: Eastern Conference] Three months ago, Sporting Kansas City won its second MLS Cup in the most dramatic manner by edging past Real Salt Lake in a riveting penalty-kick shootout on its icy home field.

Along with the glory and euphoria comes a sobering thought: there’s no way to top that achievement. It can only be matched. But that is challenge enough. Only three teams -- D.C. United (1996-97), Houston (2006-07) and the LA Galaxy (2012-13) -- have won back-to-back titles; head coach Peter Vermes will set out on that quest with a mostly unchanged squad and the backing of an organization that has ascended to elite status.

2013 Sporting Kansas City
Record: 17-10-7.
Finish: 2nd in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: won MLS Cup.

Keeper Jimmy Nielsen, one of the shootout heroes and a Livestrong Park favorite during his three MLS seasons, retired just a few days after the final to go out on the highest possible note. The only other significant departure is Teal Bunbury, who was traded to New England.

One curious wrinkle befell SKC during preseason. Twice the club and league turned down offers from Italian giant Juventus for defender Erik Palmer-Brown, the club’s youngest-ever Homegrown signing who is still in high school and doesn’t turn 17 until April. He played one Reserve League game in 2012 but has never played for the first team and, unless he leaves, will play this year for the club’s under-18 academy team.

Rather than ease most of his players back into the flow during preseason, Vermes gave a lot of the regulars a lot of minutes. The first week of play is rough: SKC plays the league opener at Seattle Saturday (NBCSN, 3 p.m.), and then hosts Cruz Azul of Mexico Wednesday in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals.

Top scorer Claudio Bieler (11 goals) notched five goals and six assists and played the most minutes (478) in preseason play. MLS Cup MVP Aurelien Collin, who headed SKC’s goal during regulation and smashed home the decisive penalty kick, led defenders in minutes played with 418.

Vermes must plan for World Cup absences of Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, who was named team captain for 2014. Ike Opara, troubled by injuries and inconsistency in San Jose, has smoothed out his game and is first choice, but not the only choice, to step in at centerback. Ex-Timber Sal Zizzo, a speedy wide player often sidelined by injuries in Portland, was second only to Bieler in preseason minutes (460) and scored three goals after arriving via a trade.

SA's Eastern Conference Previews:
Chicago | Columbus | D.C. United | Houston | Montreal
New England | New York | Philadelphia | Sporting KC | Toronto FC

SA's Western Conference Previews:
Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | LA Galaxy
Portland | Real Salt Lake | San Jose | Seattle | Vancouver

WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? The champion didn’t coast to its title, and showed its mettle before surviving the marathon penalty-kick shootout in the final. It conquered Houston, which had eliminated SKC in the playoffs the past two seasons, and overcame stubborn resistance from New England to prevail. Nielsen, Zusi and Besler were the team’s leaders last year, but Collin is also a strong personality, and winning two titles (U.S. Open Cup in 2012, also in a shootout at home) has forged a powerful camaraderie. Paulo Nagamura’s return from injury sparked a surge that carried SKC all the way to the final and with him healthy for a full season, the tidy midfield work of Oriol Rosell should be more fruitful. Like Benny Feilhaber, who flourished when Vermes traded for him, Zizzo could be poised to finally fulfill his enormous promise.

WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Replacing Nielsen is a huge challenge. Upon his retirement, Vermes stated the likely starter would be Eric Kronberg, who has been with the team since 2006, though SKC also swung a trade to bring in Kansas City native Andy Gruenebaum from Columbus and 20-year-old Jon Kempin got several starts in preseason. Kronberg lacks experience -- just five league games in eight seasons -- so the dynamic in goal is radically different. SKC mostly stayed healthy last year, and that luck could go sour in 2014.

PROJECTED FINISH: 1st-2nd place. Points might be lost with players away, but this team showed when it opened the 2011 season with 10 road matches it can bounce back from adversity.

PROJECTED LINEUP: 4-4-2
Goalkeeper:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
1-Eric Kronberg (30)/USA (9th season)

Defenders:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
7-Chance Myers
(26)/USA (7th season)
78-Aurelien Collin (27)/France (4th season)
5-Matt Besler (27)/USA (6th season)
15-Seth Sinovic (27)/USA (4th season)

Midfielders:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
20-Oriol Rosell
(21)/Spain (3rd season)
6-Paulo Nagamura (31)/Brazil (3rd season)
10-Benny Feilhaber (29)/USA(2nd season)

Forwards:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
16-Claudio Bieler
(30)/Argentina (2nd season)
14-Dom Dwyer (23)/England (3rd season)
8-Graham Zusi (27)/USA (6th season)

First off the bench:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
94-Jimmy Medranda (20)/Colombia (2nd season)
3-Ike Opara (25)/USA(2nd season)
17-C.J. Sapong (25)/USA (4th season)
11-Sal Zizzo (26)/USA (Portland Timbers)
Sporting KC: complete roster.

Note:
returning players in bold.

MARCH SCHEDULE:
March 8: at Seattle, 3 pm ET (NBCSN)
March 12:
Cruz Azul (CCL), 8 pm ET (FOX Sports 2, UDN)
March 15: FC Dallas, 8:30 pm ET
March 19: at Cruz Azul (CCL), 8 pm ET (FOX Sports 2, Galavision)
March 22: San Jose, 8:30 pm ET
March 29: at Colorado, 6 pm ET
Sporting KC: complete schedule.




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