As intriguing as a move back to the Western Conference will be for Sporting Kansas City once the season starts, the next month is not about history.
The 2013 MLS Cup champion took a steep drop last year. It finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and exited the playoffs quickly, beaten by the Red Bulls. Players going off form and injuries prompted the slide, and aside from the obvious effect of reduced performance, head coach Peter Vermes cites two detriments.
“The younger players are there to be built slowly into the team,” said Vermes by phone Wednesday night from Arizona, where SKC is training until Tuesday and will return to nine days later. “When you have to count on them every day, on an every-game basis, as opposed to a game here and a game where they’re getting their feet and keeping their level up, it’s very difficult for them to keep that level up with any consistency.
“On the other side of it is the fact is when you start to get your regular players injured, especially all over the field, you start to lessen the competition within each division and that doesn’t keep guys at the top of their game.”
“All of that has a negative effect on the overall picture. That’s not an excuse, it’s a consequence of the number of injuries we had last year.”
Two players are still recovering from their 2014 maladies. Right back Chance Myers is rehabbing a ruptured Achilles tendon after playing just seven games last season, and Graham Zusi has yet to resume full training due to a stress reaction in his right foot . Both are being eased through training camp by the SKC medical staff. Last year, defender Ike Opara played just three games before suffering a chondral defect injury in his right ankle that ended his season; because of wet conditions, he sat out the preseason opener last week against Portland, as did Zusi, Myers and returnee Roger Espinoza.
Defender Aurelien Collin, a Best XI selection and MLS Cup MVP in 2013, is gone, as is midfielder/defender Lawrence Olum. Forwards Soony Saad and C.J. Sapong found new homes. Three keepers -- none with any significant MLS experience -- will vie for the job shared last year by Eric Kronberg and Andy Gruenebaum, and at this point Vermes says Jon Kempin, Tim Melia and Luis Marin all have an equal chance.
“The great thing is we have a formidable group who I think is going to be very competitive,” said Vermes. “A lot of it will play out in preseason, but I like the three guys we’ve added to our team. I feel very confident in that area of the field. One good thing for us is that they all play with their feet really, really well.”
Marin, 31, played for Chile at the 2010 World Cup and should take the No. 1 jersey by opening day. Kempin has four MLS games on his resume, and Melia has bounced on and off MLS rosters the past five years as a reserve-pool goalkeeper. SKC summoned Melia last year when injuries hit Gruenebaum and Kronberg though he never got into a game.
Vermes has restocked the front line to alleviate the losses of Saad and Sapong and also relieve pressure on Dom Dwyer, who took the brunt of opponents challenges while scoring a team-record 22 goals. Bernardo Anor comes over from the Crew and seems ideally suited to play the left wing in Vermes’ preferred 4-3-3 formation. Vermes has great hopes for Hungarian forward Krisztian Nemeth, who scored eight goals last season for Dutch club Roda JC.
“He’s a very good player, brings a different dynamic,” says Vermes. "He’ll give us some different looks and he can play in the center, or pull to the left or the right.”
The growth of Espinoza from U.S. college product to Honduran international is one of the league’s best success stories. He departed after the 2012 MLS season to play for Wigan Athletic, then in the Premier League, but its relegation and the departure of manager Roberto Martinez to Everton prompted a slip in his fortunes. At 28, his experience and familiarity with the league and his team should generate success right away.
“There’s no doubt that transition period is going to be pretty seamless,” said Vermes. “The thing about Roger is, when he left us to go over to the EPL, he was on the verge of really having found himself as the type of pro and man that he was becoming. In the two and a half years he was there, I think he became that accomplished and very confident player.
“So we’re getting a guy back who fits right into the way we play, but also has an incredible quality in that he’s got a winner’s mentality and it’s infectious within the group. He’s definitely a big player for us to have back.”
The team’s history as a Western team is encouraging. It won the Western Division and MLS Cup in 2000, and reached the title game four years later after topping its division again. The chance to rekindle old rivalries -- including head-banging playoff encounters with San Jose in back-to-back seasons -- is accompanied by a sense of redemption.