Saturday, March 07, 2015

Sporting's Move West Brings Plenty of Questions

The 2015 MLS season has kicked off in LA, which means in less than two days Sporting Kansas City will start their season against the New York Red Bulls at Sporting Park. With Sporting’s season so close to starting I figured it was time to take one last preview at the team and how they’ll do in the 2015 season.

First the roster, starting in goal, where Sporting return just one of their three goalkeepers from last year, homegrown goalkeeper Jon Kempin, as Eric Kronberg and Andy Gruenebaum both moved on. In their place come Luis Marin and Tim Melia. While depth wise the team may not be as good as they were last year, overall, the quality has improved. While Marin has not played outside of Chile in his career, his pedigree is better than either Kronberg or Gruenebaum and should give KC much more in goal this year. Behind him, Kempin has earned more experience but seems like a strong candidate to go to Oklahoma City to be a starter consistently. Melia came to the team last year as a pool goalkeeper and would be Marin’s everyday back up should Kempin go out on loan. Again, depth wise Kansas City may be a little weaker, but Marin should be a step up as a starter.

Defensively KC still has plenty of questions. In central defense the absence of Aurelien Collin leaves a big hole to fill. The returning Ike Opara will get every chance to be his replacement next to captain, Matt Besler. The question on Opara is can he stay healthy. In 2013, predominately as a backup he played the most games of his MLS career, 18. The rest of his career has been marred by injuries. If he can stay healthy, he may not give the intensity of Collin, but if he’s healthy, he can be just as strong defensively. Behind those two is Jalil Anibaba, who was acquired as part of the Collin trade. He’ll try to rebuild his career after he slumped through his last season in Seattle after a few years in Chicago. Behind him come two of KC’s homegrown players, Kevin Ellis, who proved to be a capable utility player all along the back line last year for KC, and Erik Palmer-Brown, who could be sold to Juventus and loaned back before the end of the year.

Out wide, Kansas City has certainly addressed some of their depth issues. While Chance Myers continues to recover from his Achilles tear, KC still has a number of players that can play out wide. The biggest move may actually be on the left though where Seth Sinovic has a big challenge for his starting job with the recently signed Marcel de Jong. The Bundesliga veteran has spent much of his time in preseason playing with Sporting’s first team. KC also has a pair of rookies that can play wide defensive positions, Saad Abdul-Salaam and Amadou Dia; two of KC’s three first round picks are both expected to get time out wide. Dia has been getting much of the time in preseason in the right back position with the first team. The team also has the versatile Ellis and veteran Jacob Peterson who spent time out wide last season. The defense as a whole is deeper than it was in 2014, but with Myers’ ability upon his return still in question, and Opara’s health questions, the starting defense is not as good as the 2014 version.

The midfield for Kansas City has gotten an overhaul in the offseason as KC has brought in a number of midfielders, so many that the team signed and waived James Marcelin in the offseason. The biggest news of the offseason for KC was bring back midfielder Roger Espinoza from Wigan Athletic. His return immediately gave KC more bite in the midfield while adding experience. Espinoza’s countryman, Jorge Claros was another one of the casualties though, coming into camp unfit and was eventually released from his contract. Along with Espinoza, the team also added two more defensive minded midfielders, bringing in “Mr. Alex Morgan,” Servando Carrasco from the Houston Dynamo in exchange for the teams second round draft pick this year. More recently the team added Haitian, Soni Mustivar, who has experience playing in both France and Haiti. The team does return two defensive midfielders from last season, Paulo Nagamura who was extremely important to KC in 2014, but missed half the season with a reoccurring ankle injury that kept him from being involved enough. The other is Mikey Lopez; the Generation Adidas midfielder hasn’t been able to stake a place in the lineup. So far in preseason, the two deep midfield positions have been taken by Espinoza, and Benny Feilhaber. Feilhaber had spent some time in the deep midfield last season, especially after Oriol Rosell left the team as Peter Vermes’ system relies on a deep midfielder being able to play the distributor role. Unfortunately for KC, the departed Lawrence Olum really couldn’t do that.

In the attacking midfield position, KC has the previously mentioned Feilhaber, although as I mentioned, his distribution skills are probably going to help KC deeper on the field. That currently leaves Jimmy Medranda and forward Krisztian Nemeth as two candidates to play there. Nemeth has been getting the time there in preseason, but the same was true of Claudio Bieler, who played in the midfield in preseason last year, but never did in the game. Defensively in the midfield for KC, I think the team is set, Feilhaber seems set to play the deep lying role in a similar, but different way than Rosell played it, which will allow KC the ability to play out of the back once again. Espinoza will be there to clean things up. While Nemeth’s inclusion in the midfield causes other problems for KC on the field, the way he’s played this preseason, you have to find a way to get him on the field.

When it comes to the wide players for KC, they looked good in preseason, but it becomes a question on whether the level is going to be enough to help KC in the goal scoring numbers. There has to be more support for Dom Dwyer up top this season. And whether that’s from the wide players, or from Nemeth, it needs to come from somewhere. The wide players like other positions were gutted by Vermes over the offseason. Graham Zusi remains as a consistent starter out wide for KC, the opposite wing looks set to go to Bernardo Anor, the former Columbus Crew midfielder who had a strong preseason. Vermes has to be hoping for a break out season from the 26 year old. The team also has new depth up top with two rookies, Connor Hallisey and James Ansu Rogers able to provide depth along with Nemeth who can play any of the front three in KC’s 4-3-3. Peterson is the only forward depth to remain from the 2014 season.

The center forward position for Kansas City may be one of the thinnest for KC, they really only have two center forwards, Dwyer and Nemeth. After those two the team is really playing more of a 4-6-0 with Peterson playing a false 9 position like the Spanish made famous. Dwyer is the undisputed starter and will be relied upon to carry the majority of the scoring load again. While I’m not sure the team needs another go to forward at the center forward position, the team is the thinnest it has ever been at this position under Vermes without the likes of CJ Sapong, Claudio Bieler, Omar Bravo, Soony Saad, Teal Bunbury, and others that could play other positions along with center forward.

Overall I think this team is deeper than the team Kansas City had last year and has more talent in specific areas of the field, but the question is whether this team can handle the move to the Western Conference that KC is doing. With the additions of Orlando City and New York City FC, Kansas City is back in the Western Conference for the first time since 2004. Like their original move to the East in 2005, KC moves to the strong of the two conferences. They move to the West, stacked with teams like LA, which has won three of the last four MLS Cups, Seattle, last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners, FC Dallas who has shown strong gains the last year or so, and Real Salt Lake who KC beat for MLS Cup in 2013. Last year, KC wouldn’t have even made the playoffs if they had been in the West.

So has the team done enough to improve from last year? I think they have done at least just enough to get themselves into the playoff picture in the West in 2015. Part of that has to do with the upgrades that KC has made, adding the likes of Espinoza and Nemeth as well as Marin in goal. This team should be able to do well. The other thing they have going for them, is that while they stumbled down the stretch last year, plenty of that had to do with the level of fatigue and injuries that KC had to deal with in 2014, it was almost an unprecedented level of injuries. KC used the same lineup just two to three times over the course of the entire season due to all the injuries and call ups that they had to deal with. A return to a bit of normalcy when it comes to the lineup will do Kansas City a world of good in 2015.

In the end, KC is still a talented team, but there are two major questions that will need to be answered if KC is going to not just make the playoffs but do well in the post season. The first is whether the team can actually get some support for Dwyer. Much of that is supposed to come from Nemeth, but even the likes of Zusi and Anor are going to have to be more involved in the finishing aspect for KC to be successful, because if Dwyer’s goals dry up, the team is in real trouble. The second question is at the other end of the field and the team’s defense. Has the defense, with a new goalkeeper, and at least three of the starting back five being different than the start of the 2014 season been able to gel enough. Marin has shown in preseason that he likes to come off his line quickly, has Besler and Opara been able to get the timing on that down with Marin so that they know when he’s coming, or he knows when to stay. It bit them in the friendly draw against Colorado in Tucson so we’ll see if the team has learned from that. But even that, the questions of the defense have to be asked regarding Opara’s health, de Jong’s entry into the team displacing Sinovic, and the inexperience of the team’s right backs that will be playing until Myers is ready to step back in.

If KC can answer those questions they should be able to get into the playoffs, which, with an expanded playoff format to six teams in each conference, should be an easy expectation. That said finishing fourth or fifth in the West is about where I expect Sporting to finish up this season.

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