With Tuesday's news announcing the signing of new Designated Player, forward Claudio Bieler, the acquisition of midfield maestro Benny Feilhaber via trade, and the additional signings of defensive depth in Ike Opara and Josh Gardner, Sporting Kansas City's already looks quite close to the way it will when they open the 2013 season of play on March 2 away to Philadelphia Union, as was also announced on Tuesday.
Bieler and Feilhaber will no doubt be the ones that the headlines are written about as the season draws nearer, and with good reason; they're expected to be a pair of huge pieces to technical director/head coach Peter Vermes' team as they compete across three competitions in 2013 - Major League Soccer, US Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League. From this day in December, these two are Sporting KC's most technically gifted and talented players in the attacking half.
One of the greatest benefits for Bieler and Feilhaber joining this particular Sporting squad is that they have been brought in to supplement an already accomplished and foundationally-sound squad of players now with a wealth of MLS, Open Cup and playoff experience. Sporting have finished atop the Eastern Conference regular season standings in each of the last two seasons. Toss in a 2012 US Open Cup championship, and this is a collective group of players that not only know each other well, but have learned how to win, together.
Only a pair of disappointing playoff losses to kryptonite club Houston Dynamo stand in the way of Sporting and possible further silverware. Bieler and Feilhaber have been brought in to take Sporting to the next level, to take them past the pesky Dynamo, and claim "multiple Cups in multiple years and string them together," as Sporting Club president/CEO Robb Heineman put it during Bieler's introductory press conference.
How the Ecuadorian forward and American midfielder fit into their new squad will surely be important for future successes, but there's also still a couple of voids to fill in the squad, and a few roster spots left to be claimed to fill them. How might Vermes go about squaring away the back end of his roster before March hits? Well, I'm glad you asked.
Starting from the back, Jimmy Nielsen is team captain and the incumbent starting goalkeeper, and nothing outside of a serious preseason injury looks to be changing anytime before 2014. Eric Kronberg is a well-respected back-up keeper in the league, if not for having played a ton of games, and Jon Kempin looks to be among the brighter of the young, young (19 years of age) American goalkeepers coming through the ranks. I rate him incredibly highly.
The spot between the posts is unlikely to change. (3)
How do you improve the best defense in the league? Well, for starters, you don't. You can hope to maintain the status quo from 2012's stout defensive performance (27 goals allowed in 34 games), and pray like crazy the injury bug stays away from the greatest foundation of your team. Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic (from right to left) are the starters from day one.
If the coaching staff were to target a position along the backline where they could maybe see an area for improvement, it would be Sinovic's left-back spot. But, even that is highly unlikely. While he may not be the flashiest player in the league, and perhaps he's even maximized his potential as a player, Sinovic is already one of the top two or three at his position in MLS. At 60,000 dollars against the salary cap (ATC), Sinovic is incredible value for Sporting's rather modest investment, as well a perfect fit and completely bought into Vermes' philosophy.
Opara and Lawrence Olum are a fairly ideal pairing at center-back behind Collin and Besler, with Olum also being discussed as a possibility at defensive midfielder by Vermes already this offseason. Olum is an incredible steal at 44,000 dollars (ATC). They're both squarely on the roster. Yann Songo'o was signed last week as well, and at this moment, projects to be a two- to three-year project in the center of defense, but reportedly has great upside. Kyle Miller is an even longer-term project, at best. (11)
Gardner was acquired to be the back-up left-back, maybe pushed forward to left winger in a pinch. As of today, Kevin Ellis - another young prospect (21 years) is the first option as back-up behind Myers, following the trade that sent Michael Harrington to Portland Timbers. "We have guys on the club right now, within the roster, who can play in that position," Vermes said earlier this month. "As we move into preseason, we'll continue to evaluate where we are with that, but we're not looking at it as, 'Oh, this is a major hole within our team and we've got to do something.'"
Another signing in the 21-30 third of the roster is a possibility, but not a given. Kevin Ellis is going to be a player, and 2013 might be his first chance to prove it to us. An additional signing could still always be possible. Defensive epth is a great thing. (13)
Lots of options already, but room for more in the midfield. Perhaps the lightest area of the team at this point, the midfield is the surest bet to see an additional player or two inked to contract before the upcoming season kicks off. Only six midfielders currently reside on the Sporting roster, with the possibility of one - Graham Zusi - seeing quite some time at a wide forward spot, and Olum pushing ahead as the defensive mid.
Staying deep in the midfield, Oriol Rosell was the coaching staff's favorite to start the season just ahead of the defense, at least as recently as November 7 when Sporting were kicked out of the playoffs by Houston. A bright young talent, "Uri" showed incredibly well that night against the Dynamo, controlling the midfield and cleaning up well in front of the defense. Paulo Nagamura, who can play either as the second of three central midfielders, or in Rosell's spot, is the other most obvious option. Michael Thomas fits the mold, but failed to make an appearance post-August 11 this year. He's one guy who may need to impress Vermes and Co. this preseason.
The "halfway" midfielder spot, as I like to think of it (halfway offensive-minder midfielder, halfway defensive-charged), will be a steady rotation of players hand-picked by Vermes on a given night, chosen to fill a specific role against a particular opponent. Zusi, Nagamura and Peterson Joseph are odds-on favorites to appear here.
And then, there's the all-out attacking midfielder. When healthy and fit, Feilhaber's name is written here in pen. Zusi and Joseph will replace him well when otherwise. Simple as that. (19)
A low-priced chance opportunity be given to another defensive or box-to-box midfielder prior to the season, which would likely push Thomas further down the pecking order.
Eight forwards, three starting spots. Kei Kamara is the everyday starter at right wing, no two ways around that. Over the last two years, he's shown an improvement and comfort level in his game that has made him one of the most dangerous players in MLS, and near un-playable at times. Zusi is an everyday starter somewhere on the field, possibly at left wing. Jacob Peterson and Bobby Convey are the two fighting for every minute not occupied by Zusi - two good options to have, mind you.
That leaves center forward. How Bieler will fit into the team right away is obviously to be seen, but right now, there's not a center forward on the roster that can hold a candle to his natural instincts, scoring pedigree and potential to be a game-changer for Sporting. CJ Sapong has scored 14 league goals in his first two professional seasons, but obviously the coaching staff is hoping for more to come from him, bringing in Bieler in case it's not there in the 2011 Rookie of the Year.
Teal Bunbury is ever the X-Factor in terms of Sporting's scoring options. At times, he's athletically a step above the rest, while other times he can't control the ball within ten feet of his person on a first touch. His left knee was mangled pretty badly - to the tune of a torn ACL and damaged LCL - in late August. Expect him to join the team in "soccer workouts" halfway through preseason in Tucson or Orlando, and become available for selection to the gameday roster in mid- to late April.
Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer once again look to be the two young prospects picking up the scraps of minutes on the front line. Dwyer has the upper hand, as he can play in either wide or central areas. Whereas Saad should aspire to one day be what Bieler is. (27)
The one that rises to the top. As you can see, the 30-man roster is nearly set. Of greater importance and discusion is this: Graham Zusi has enjoyed a meteoric rise from bottom-of-the-squad player to being on the cusp of a regular places in the United States national team since May 2011, all credit to himself. 2013 is the time for someone else to step up, to show their game to be of a higher level, to announce their arrival as a "lock" in the starting lineup. Who's 2013's version of Graham Zusi going to be?