With the Sporting KC season over, it's time to take a look at how the season went for Sporting KC and where the team needs to go to move forward in 2015. With the move to the Western Conference, the expectation is that Sporting will be walking into a much stronger conference than the East. And with the likes of Seattle, Los Angeles, Salt Lake, and Dallas in the division, it's certainly hard to argue that the division is the stronger of the two, and should get stronger with the additions of KC and Houston.
So what I'm going to do is take a look at goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders, and forwards and see what happened with each this season and what needs to happen heading into 2015 for KC.
We'll start at the back with the goalkeepers.
After a four year period with Jimmy Nielsen that saw the Dane miss just four league games in that span, Kansas City had three different goalkeepers start a league game in net for KC. The first time KC has done this since the 1999 season when Kansas City had four goalkeepers start at least one league game for KC. Eric Kronberg, who was given the number one jersey by Peter Vermes after the retirement of Nielsen led the way starting 20 of KC's 34 league games. KC native, Andy Gruenebaum started 11 games, while home grown player, Jon Kempin started the other three for KC.
Kronberg's time in net was highlighted by some poor decision making on when he should come off his line. From clearing out his defender in the season opener in Seattle, to taking two steps forward against DC before realizing that Fabian Espindola's shot was going to go over his head, to his poor positioning on Jermaine Jones' winner in September, to the team's playoff loss to New York where Kronberg gave Dax McCarty a clear look from the top of the box with a poor punch and then not coming off his line to claim the ball on New York's winning goal. Kronberg's decision making has been in question for much of the season for KC.
KC's longest tenured player finished the season with a 1.1 goals against average in league play, but it didn't really feel like he "won" games for KC this year. It's seemed over the last few years that Nielsen was good for being the guy that rescued points for KC at least a couple times this season. With Kronberg you just didn't feel like you got that impression.
When Kronberg went down in the middle of the season, it was Gruenebaum who replaced him in net. Gruenebaum did reasonably well, if not spectacular. His mistakes didn't seem to stand out as much as Kronberg's did, but he had a few himself, including not holding a shot in the US Open Cup loss to Portland, and then the lack of communication in Vancouver that led to the Igor Juliao own goal. The thing that really stands out with Gruenebaum this year though were his injuries. Three times this year, Gruenebaum missed games due to injuries. The first was in April when the team was forced to recall Kempin from his loan to OKC when he sprained his ankle in practice. Then there was the game in Vancouver where Gruenebaum subbed off at half time with an injury. Finally, late in the season, after being given the starting role ahead of Kronberg after Kronberg's poor performance against New England, Gruenebaum only started one game before getting injured again and missing the rest of the season. Unfortunately this isn't a new problem for Gruenebaum who missed the end of last season with the Columbus Crew with another injury.
The injuries to Kansas City's first two keepers allowed Sporting's third string keeper, the team's first home grown signing, Kempin to get his first league appearances for KC. Kempin didn't do a horrible job out there for Kansas City, but at times look every bit of the 21 year old making his first string of competitive starts in MLS. The skill is there, but I'm not sure that Kempin is quite ready to step up to be the everyday starter at this level. Of course the only way to be sure there would be to give him an extended run in net in league play.
With regards to the goalkeeper position going forward, there are plenty of questions to ask. They start with the expansion draft coming up shortly after MLS Cup. Who does Sporting protect? Do they even protect any of their goalkeepers? Other questions remain after that for Sporting even if no goalkeeper is taken. Does KC stay the course with Kronberg? Does Gruenebaum get the number 1 jersey heading into 2015? Does KC just hand things over to Kempin and except that they're going to go through some growing pains with the goalkeeper? Or do they look outside their current crop of goalkeepers for a starter?
For me, I think what this year has shown is that Kronberg doesn't appear to be an MLS caliber starter. He's been a great servant to the club and has bided his time as a back up to Bo Oshoniyi, Kevin Hartman, and Jimmy Nielsen, but I just don't think he's the player to build around for the next few years. So if Kronberg is not taken in the expansion draft, I would look for a way to get rid of him, either by trade or other means.
If Kronberg is out, the starting goalkeeping position becomes open for Sporting. For me, I am not sure that KC should give that position to Gruenebaum either. For me, Gruenebaum's recent injury history over the past two seasons has me worried whether he's able to stand up to the beating a goalkeeper takes game in and game out in MLS any more. I think he'd do fine as a backup, getting a few games in the Open Cup or a spot start occasionally in league play, but I'm just not sure he's a full time starter any more.
As for Kempin, as I stated above, I'm not sure he's ready to be the everyday starter at this level. For me, I'd like to see him get one more season under his belt as a full time starter under Nielsen with the Oklahoma City Energy. This way he's getting games every week instead of potentially being the number 2 keeper and just sitting on the bench.
So what I would do with the goalkeeper position is look for an upgrade, either within MLS (no Dan Kennedy won't be available by the time we pick in the dispersal draft) or internationally. With that upgrade coming in, I would leave both Kronberg and Gruenebaum available in the expansion draft, if one gets taken, pull the other one back and he becomes the new back up, or he's waived/cut/traded eventually. If he's gone you go out and find a backup goalkeeper with some experience in MLS, but you don't need a ton. When the USL-Pro season starts, you send Kempin to OKC again to be their starter and get another full season with Nielsen. The expectation is that the new starter would only be a 1-2 year stop gap before Kempin can win the job himself.