Sporting Kansas City finished the 2013 MLS season by earning a No. 2 seed in the MLS Playoffs, upsetting the No. 1-seeded New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals and winning the 2013 MLS Cup against Real Salt Lake. In 2014, SKC will hope that they can finish the MLS season with the same results, and, with over 95 percent of their minutes from last season returning, they should be very confident that they can succeed with their squad.
As crazy as it sounds, Sporting Kansas City’s biggest weakness may be in their attack. They have a fairly talented attacking squad going into the 2014 MLS Season, but they don’t have any player that’s going to score 15-plus goals like some of the other top Eastern Conference teams possess. Claudio Bieler is their returning leading striker with 10 goals, but he won’t be able to carry the team by himself up top this season.
Someone else must step up for SKC up top if they are to continue to play their defensive style of soccer that allows for multiple players to contribute to scoring. The player that Kansas City should expect to step up is Dom Dwyer. Dwyer has the potential to transform into a proven goal scorer for Kansas City and has shown some promise in the preseason. Although the preseason isn’t indicative of actual MLS play, SKC fans should be excited by their team’s performance as a whole in the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic, where they finished second.
The midfield is really what makes Sporting Kansas City tick. Graham Zusi is the heart and soul of the team and also the player that everyone in MLS knows due to his place with the U.S. Men’s National Team, but Paulo Nagamura and Oriol Rosell’s health is going to have a major impact on whether or not SKC succeeds this season as well.
C. J. Sapong is going to probably play a more attacking-winger role, but he has to get back on defense to help more often because the Eastern Conference has gotten a lot better in terms of midfield ability with the additions of players such as Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu.
However, the player that is going to make or break Kansas City in 2014 is Benny Feilhaber. Feilhaber’s vision is going to be crucial to the success Bieler and the wingers up top, because teams are going to mark Zusi for a large majority of every game. Feilhaber must become this team’s secondary provider.
Sporting Kansas City’s got one of the better defenses in MLS as well. Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin should be the two players used at centerback with Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic at fullback. The biggest weakness for SKC’s defense might not even be a fault of theirs. Expect Kansas City’s defense to struggle at time this season just because of the overwhelming talent thrown into the Eastern Conference this season. The little mistakes that they were able to get away with last season aren’t going to slide in 2014.
The retirement of SKC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen doesn’t seem like it would be a major deal because Eric Kronberg is a fantastic athlete and goalie who has proven himself in training and in the preseason. However, it could be the biggest problem for Kansas City this season. Nielsen’s leadership is one of the things that helped SKC’s backline stay focused and together. We haven’t seen enough of Kronberg in competitive MLS matches to determine whether he’ll have the same presence on the field as Nielsen, but having learned under Nielsen for the past few years, SKC fans shouldn’t have too much to worry about.
My prediction for Kansas City’s season is that, once again, they will finish with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They should win around 15 games. SKC should lose no more than 10 games this season, but they should draw more games than last season because the rest of the Eastern Conference has improved tremendously. I don’t think that they will be able to win the MLS Cup this season, but do not be surprised if Sporting Kansas City goes to the MLS Final.
Check back on Thursday to continue following our series previewing all 19 MLS squads’ seasons as first kick approaches on March 8 at CenturyLink Field.