MLS First Kick 2011: Sporting KC Season Storylines

BALTIMORE - JANUARY 13: A view of the jerseys of the Vancouver Whitecaps Kansas City Sporting and the Portland Timbers during the 2011 MLS SuperDraft on January 13 2011 at the Baltimore Convention Center in Baltimore Maryland. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)

With Major League Soccer opening day just a day away - Tuesday night - and Sporting Kansas City's inaugural opener under the club's newly rebranded name on Saturday, it's time to start breaking into 2011 Sporting KC preseason coverage. This week, leading up to Saturday's opener against Chivas USA, we'll be taking a look at a lot of the different angles of the team, the league and how it will all play out.

Today, we take a look the big storylines surrounding Sporting KC's 2011 season.

Have you heard: Sporting KC is getting a new stadium?

As absolutely everyone that follows MLS - even at a great distance - knows, Sporting KC are set to open their brand new $180 million (approaching $200 million, reportedly) stadium/soccer cathedral this summer. The grand chrsitening of the beautiful, new building is still months away, though, despite the season kicking off this week.

The home opener is scheduled for Thursday, June 9 (9 p.m. CT, ESPN2) when Chicago Fire visit the new venue, located at Village West in Kansas City, KS.

This will, of course, mean that the team will be forced into a sizable road trip (discussed in greater depth later on) to begin the season. Over the history of MLS, when teams have embarked on long road trips to begin a season while a new stadium is being finished, the success rate has been steady and very much the same for all comers - very low. Sporting KC will hope to buck that trend in 2011, as they play their first 10 games (of a 34 game schedule) on the road before the home date against Chicago.

How SKC performs on this trip will have serious implications, determining whether they can break their two-year playoff drought, or not.

Obviously, there's much more to a season than a stadium; the rest, after the jump...

Also, have you heard: the team has a new name, too?

Yes, the club formerly known as Kansas City Wizards took 15 years of history, fandom and pagaentry and flushed it all down the crapper following the conclusion of the 2010 season; all because they "couldn't win under such a 'Mickey Mouse' name," and elected for some Euro-poser, craptastic re-tread of a once-successful "sporting club" in Portugal.

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Just kidding. Contrary to many fans and fellow bloggers, I was indifferent to the idea at the time of the rebranding back in November. And, after being exposed to the basic principles and ideas of the new organization of fans being known as "members," I warmed to it even more. Once I took a look at the entire scope of thing objectively, it really wasn't all that hard to grasp what the owenrship group, OnGoal, LLC, were shooting for.

"But, what will I call the team when referring to them as a third-person plural?" Just keep on doing what you've been doing for 15 years - call them the Wizards. It's still the unofficial, official nickname. Much like Manchester United are referred to as the "Red Devils," Chelsea the "Blues," and Arsenal the "Gunners," Sporting KC will still be unofficially and cognitively known as the Wizards.

Maybe it's all of that and the fact that I wasn't a Wizards fan for a decade-and-a-half, like many people, so my emotional attachment to the name just wasn't that strong. In place of the old official nickname, you now get free tickets to away games, single game tickets at a discount price and discounts on items from the club's sponsorship partners. Can you live with a different name for all of those benefits?

Could you live with a different name, while a innovative ownership group pioneer their way through American soccer, forever changing the way things are done, and (hopefully) bringing trophy after trophy back to Kansas City? I know I could.

Designated Player Omar Bravo's first season in MLS

In 2010, Kansas City was one of just a handful of teams that did not have a single player on their roster occupying a Designated Player spot. The team's first ever DP Claudio Lopez was allowed to leave via free agency after the 2009 season. In comparison to many of the other DP deals throughout MLS's short history, the deal could be considered a mild success; but, at the same time, nowhere near the level necessary for a team with a designated player to win an MLS Cup for the first time in history.

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That's right - no team with a designated player on their roster has ever won MLS Cup. Let's think about that. These are guys that cost a lot of money. A million dollars a year in some cases. Multi-millions in David Beckham and Thierry Henry's cases. So, why hasn't the large monetary investment for this "larger market" clubs willing to splash big bucks on international stars paid off?

While the answer to that question isn't quite clear, it does emphasize the importance of not just signing a DP, but making sure he's the right guy to fit into the team the right way.

As I've discussed at great length already, Omar Bravo brings many things to the table for Kansas City. He isn't the namesake of a Beckham or Henry, but he looks to make more sense football-wise than either of the big European stars in Los Angeles and New York, respectively. At least, on paper. Without him in 2010, the team finished ninth (one place out of the playoffs). With him in 2011, much pressure is on the little Mexican to take this team to new heights.

The "Teal Bunbury Clock" is ticking

An international federation affiliation switch, a US men's national team debut, a two week stint with fellow MLS Generation adidas players in Spain to play against the likes of Real Madrid's reserve team, a 10-day training stint with English Premier League club Stoke City, multiple selections as "2011 MLS Breakout Player of the Year," first career goal with the USMNT, a world-sweeping Internet meme following said goal, a dislocated elbow.

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What a wild ride it has been for second year forward Teal Bunbury; and, that's just since the end of October. Few players in the league have had their name in the headlines more this offseason. Such success and acclaim has surely seen the rest of the world take notice of the 21-year old.

That's quite a lot of publicity for a player that only scored 5 goals in his rookie season last year. Granted, as his playing time increased late in the season, so did his goal scoring. But, with Bunbury, you can just see that "it" is there. I don't know what it is, I don't know how to explain or quantify it, but it is there. It appears that he is headed down a similar path that saw current USMNT regular Jozy Altidore spend a couple years playing in America before outgrowing the league and moving overseas.

Many fans had grave concern during the training stint with Stoke City that he was on trial to potentially be signed immediately. Sporting KC has since said that it was nothing more than training with the club. Even that doesn't downplay the obvious - that Teal's days in Kansas City, and MLS for that matter, are numbered.

The dislocated elbow shouldn't stall the process a whole lot, either. It's looking more and more like he may miss only one game to start the season, if any at all. Expect to see Bunbury play the entire year with SKC - save for potential USMNT call-ups - start 2012 with the club and, based upon his 2011 campaign and the start to 2012, ultimately be snapped up by a (hopefully, for his sake) quality club in Europe sometime in the summer of 2012, during the European offseason and coinciding transfer window. That sounds about as logical as anything.

What? It can't all be pretty bunnies and candy canes, can it?

Also, a couple other storylines that I covered in my season preview for the SB Nation soccer main page, which is, of course, worth a read all on its own:

Can they survive an epic 10-game road trip to start the season?

If we are being objective here, it’s going to be a real test. It’s not just ten games on the road; it’s a New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Colorado four-game stretch from late-April through the month of May.

That said, Jack Jewsbury might have said it best at the beginning of the preseason: "the way we look at it is: we have 34 games and there's 17 on the road, no matter how you break them up." Avoiding too many injuries will obviously be a very big key, as well as getting off to a good start against a somewhat weaker first handful of games against Chivas, Chicago, Vancouver, Columbus and New England.

How will the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup affect Sporting KC?

The 2011 version of the bi-annual competition will hit Kansas City the hardest of all MLS teams; at least as far as key players and starters go. That’s just the price you pay for having a largely international mix of players, as KC does.

Stephane Auvray (Guadeloupe), Craig Rocastle (Grenada), Shavar Thomas (Jamaica) and Roger Espinoza (Honduras) all helped their respective international teams qualify for the tournament last summer, while Teal Bunbury (USA) will surely be in the mix for the American roster, as well. That’s five plays that, when healthy, will be counted on for significant contributions as starters. Obviously, depth will be a big key in surviving up to a month without each player.

Recently signed trialist Scott Lorenz will back up Espinoza at leftback, the carousel of forwards should survive without Bunbury for a period of time, Santos or Colley could potentially step in for Thomas for a bit, but depth in the midfield is seriously lacking at the moment. Meaning, a long run by Guadeloupe and/or Grenada in the competition could cause serious problems for the players’ club team.

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Obviously, there are many, many more storylines heading into the season. I chose to focus a bit more that pertained to the the team and club as a whole. What are some other things that you'll have on your mind in 2011, that others should, too?

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