We're less than 48 hours from the start of the 2013 Sporting KC season in Philadelphia. And I'm not sure there's been a time where expectations for the team were higher. The only time they may have been higher was the start of the 2012 season. This year though, expectations feel higher. After 2 straight regular season Eastern Conference titles and a US Open Cup title, expectations have been raised. Expectations are going to be high not only to win MLS Cup, but in all 4 competitions that KC could be playing in this year.
Last night during the jersey unveiling at Sporting Park, Robb Heineman said that "we gotta win MLS Cup this year."
Heineman has been one of the biggest cheerleaders of the team and putting pressure on the team, but this year after everything that's gone on the past few, it feels like things have come to a head and all of that will culminate in the 2013 season. The team has fallen at hurdles in the race for the Supporters' Shield and in the race for MLS Cup each of the last two years. The team has not only become more successful on the field, but the bigger story has been their success off the field in the development of the team and the fanbase.
Those two things are tied together. It's been a perfect storm for Sporting lately with people tiring of the Royals continual cellar dwelling and the Chiefs falling to a depth not seen in many Chiefs fans life times. To continue that success for Sporting though, the team needs to win "the big one." Winning the Open Cup last year was great for me and many fans, but many fans in this city don't understand the multiple competition structure in soccer. Trust me I've spent time trying to explain the multiple competitions to some people, including fans and find myself talking in circles.
Now MLS Cup, that's an easy one to explain. It follows the same format as the other American sports with the playoff structure. People remember who wins the playoff champions in the US, because most of us have been trained throughout our sports watching lives that the winner of the playoff championship is the champion, not the team that had the best record during the regular season.
That's not to say that the Supporters' Shield isn't important or something to go for, it absolutely is. And there's the pressure there as well. MLSsoccer.com editors made their predictions for the Supporters' Shield this year. Of the nine editors, five of them picked Sporting to have the leagues best record, no other team got more than one. So the target grows ever larger for Sporting as they head into the season.
Then there's the defense of their US Open Cup title. The reigning champion always has a target on their back. There's also KC's return to international competition with the CONCACAF Champions' League beginning in August. Over the past few the expectations of all MLS teams in the competition have increased. Teams are now expected to advance to the knock out stage each and every year, anything less is disappointment.
With these high expectations, plenty is going to be expected of Kansas City's new players this year to contribute, and contribute early. KC is losing at least a portion of the 11 goals that Kei Kamara scored last year for KC due to his loan move to Norwich. Claudio Bieler will be expected to help fill and surpass that gap for Kansas City. On the other side of the field, KC lost a lot of their bite and composure in the midfield with the departure of Roger Espinoza for the English Premier League and Julio Cesar to Toronto. Benny Feilhaber and summer acquisition last year, Oriol Rosell will be expected to pick up the slack in the midfield. The two though, are not the same players as the ones they're replacing. That's not a bad thing, Feilhaber and Rosell will provide things that the players their replacing can't. It likely means we'll see some changes in the way the midfield works especially defensively.
The midfield loss is also going to effect the back line. A defense that turned into the best in Sporting KC history, even topping the record setting 2000 Wizards in many categories. The defense returns all 4 starters and goalkeeper, Jimmy Nielsen to retain the core, and at the same time they've improved their depth, which will help with multiple competitions.
It's not going to be an easy year for Sporting. Teams know what to expect from Sporting teams on the field now. It's time to prove that they're the better team. The loses for KC are definitely going to be felt and there are going to be more than a few growing pains throughout the season. That said KC absolutely has the talent needed for the 4 competitions this year. The majority of the nucleus is returning and those leaving are being supplemented by other parts that may not be the exact same but do bring different aspects that will be Sporting a more dynamic attack in the season.
Expectations are high for the team, from winning MLS Cup, to competing for the Supporters' Shield and all the US Open Cup and CCL games in between. But the good news for Sporting is that they know those expectations are there. They've dealt with them for much of last season, and while they've been raised both locally and nationally, Peter Vermes has built this team for that and I think they'll be ready come Saturday to start the process.