By THOMAS FLOYD
For Sporting Kansas City, 2011 was every bit the breakout the organization had hoped for and more.
Off the field, a comprehensive rebranding saw the franchise adopt a sleek new name, logo and colors. On the field, coach Peter Vermes revamped his personnel, turning what had been an aging team coming off back-to-back playoff absences into a youthful, speed-oriented squad that finished on top of the Eastern Conference.
And then there was the field itself, Livestrong Sporting Park, which gained a reputation as one of the most electric venues American soccer has to offer seemingly overnight once it debuted in June.
With 10 starters returning to a team that was one game away from reaching the MLS Cup last year, expectations are high in the American heartland heading into Year 2 of the Sporting era.
"The good thing is that we have a core group of guys that are returning from last year," Vermes said. "I don't think that it solves all of the problems, but I think it helps you at least form a basis to build from. We're not starting from ground zero, which is what we did a year ago."
Here is a closer look at Kansas City ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
SPORTING KANSAS CITY SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 13-9-12, 51 points (first in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M/F Bobby Convey, M Paulo Nagamura, M/F Jacob Peterson, F Dom Dwyer, D Cyprian Hedrick, M Michael Thomas
KEY LOSSES: F Omar Bravo, M Davy Arnaud, M Jeferson, D Shavar Thomas, M Craig Rocastle, M Milos Stojcev
Although one can rightfully point to the team's back-loaded slate of home matches following the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park as reason for Kansas City's second-half surge in 2011, the club's scorching run of form after a 1-6-1 start also coincided with Vermes finding the right mix with his rebuilt roster.
One notable development was the emergence of unheralded third-year player Graham Zusi in the squad's three-man central midfield unit. Another was the shifting of Julio Cesar and Roger Espinoza from back-line roles to spots in the midfield.
And defensively, Vermes eventually found chemistry in a group featuring right back Chance Myers, centerbacks Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler, and left back Seth Sinovic — all of whom return in front of veteran goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen this season.
"I'm biased, a little bit, but I think the back four and the goalie are the most important parts of the team if you want to win a championship," Besler said. "The comfort level is already there, so we didn't need to learn each other's habits [this preseason]. We just kind of hit the ground running."
On the other hand, Kansas City will need to replace some key veteran leadership lost during the offseason, as striker Omar Bravo returned to Mexico to join Cruz Azul while captain Davy Arnaud was traded to Montreal. Identifying who could fill that void, Vermes first pointed to a pair of conventional picks — the 34-year-old Nielsen and 33-year-old Cesar — before identifying a less-obvious choice: 27-year-old forward Kei Kamara.
"I think Kei Kamara is a guy within this team that will take the team on his back at times," Vermes said. "He's really matured over the years. He's a great team guy, and I think it means a lot for him to be an example to other guys."
With 19 goals and 10 assists over the past two seasons, Kamara has emerged as a reliable threat as a wing forward in Vermes' 4-3-3 alignment. Competing for the other two starting slots up front will be holdovers Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong, who both spent January in U.S. national team camp, as well as left-sided newcomer Bobby Convey, acquired in a trade from San Jose.
"I think over time he's going to wind up being a very valuable player within the way that we play and have a lot of impact," Vermes said of Convey, a member of the 2006 U.S. World Cup team and an MLS All-Star last season. "But I still think it's going to take a little time for him to get acclimated because the pace of our games sometimes is very, very fast with our team."
Kansas City has also bolstered its depth with the additions of holding midfielder Paulo Nagamura and winger Jacob Peterson. And first-round SuperDraft pick Dom Dwyer is another young, exciting talent to consider up top.
They're new pieces that seem to complement a strong returning contingent that, after falling at home to the Houston Dynamo in last year's Eastern Conference final, knows the MLS Cup should be well within its grasp in 2012.
"We for sure still have that sour taste in our mouths from Houston," Besler said. "The fact that it was a home game for us made it even tougher. But we used that as motivation in the offseason. We realize that we have a good shot at it this year, but it's going to take a lot of heart."