Regardless of the rest of the playoffs, our season is over. A bitter loss to Houston for the second straight year left Sporting wondering what they could have done, and what they need to do in the 2012-2013 offseason to get to the ultimate goal of the MLS Cup.
Next year will provide even more challenges. Added to the schedule of the MLS regular season and the US Open Cup will be the CONCACAF Champions League 2013-2014. At the very least, that's four more games that players will have to play.
The conference semifinals against Houston outlined the problem that Sporting Kansas City needs to address this offseason. Down two goals, Sporting was only able to pull back one in the second leg. The strategy of a defensive minded team worked wonders for Sporting in the regular season, but they were ill equipped to deal with a deficit in the playoffs.
Now, I'm not saying that Sporting needs to change it's entire approach. The defensive strategy is absolutely perfect for the personnel on the team. What is missing, however, is a sure-fire goal scorer. A striker who everyone can point to and say “That's our scorer.”
Sporting does not have just one striker that strikes fear into the hearts of defenders. They have plenty of very good strikers in Kei Kamara, CJ Sapong and occasionally Teal Bunbury. Each of them are good for 10-12 goals each year, and that is fantastic.
But what Sporting needs, in my opinion, is someone who can put up 15 or more goals per year. I realize that those are hard to find, but as Sporting enters a tournament where all of the games in the knockout round are two-leg aggregate style, the need to put up goals becomes extremely important. Defense will most likely get them through the group stage, but a goal-scorer is essential for success in the knockout stage.
Another reason why finding a striker is important is because of Teal Bunbury. Coming off a season-ending injury, we have no idea how well Bunbury is going to perform. He has had consistency issues in the past, and I feel like those will only be amplified by playing with the injury in the back of his mind.
Also with the new tie-breaker rules implemented by Major League Soccer this season the need to increase goals becomes crucial. No matter how illogical the rule may be, Sporting does not want to be caught in a situation where they lose out on a conference championship or a Supporter's Shield because of a lack of goals.
The main problem with this plan is the cost. People like Eddie Johnson, Kenny Cooper or Alvaro Saborio do not come cheap. However Sporting has the opportunity to free up some cash this offseason. In the 4-3-3 system, there is really only room for one defensive midfielder. Yet, Julio Cesar and Paulo Nagamara are both the two highest paid players on the team. It might be in Sporting's best interests to try and free up some cash that way.
It feels odd to be complaining about a team that just won their second straight conference championship, the US Open Cup and was runner up for the Supporter's Shield race. But now Sporting is in brand new territory. Starting next year they become an international brand in the North and Central American realm. Finding a goal-scoring machine may be the final step Sporting has to take to get over that hump, and into the ultimate goal of a championship.