Each and every year, the Sporting KC lineup seems consistent as the club seems to make only slight changes each season. However, after two straight exits in the MLS Cup playoffs first round and transfer windows that left something to be desired, Peter Vermes looks forward to the 2017 season with new energy.
Sporting KC looks to recover in the new season with winger Gerso Fernandes. The most notable signing of the offseason, Fernandes is joined by Spanish midfielder Ilie Sanchez, Ghanaian striker Latif Blessing in Sporting’s effort to achieve more in 2017.
“The targets that we went after, we acquired those guys. So that’s a big step in the right direction,” Vermes told SBI. “I haven’t necessarily figured out what our starting lineup is and so much is going to depend on where everybody is, how fast they assimilate to our team and our model of play, and that’s going to take a little time.”
The team also weathered contract negotiations for key central midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who has been a valuable leader for four years. Reports came out toward the end of last season that Feilhaber looked at options in Israel and Mexico, but Sporting finally re-signed the 32-year-old in mid-November 2016.
Vermes looks to accomplish more by incorporating the new pieces into a system he’s spent the last six years at Sporting KC trying to perfect. Vermes said the new players haven’t had a lot of time to assimilate within the group due to late arrivals when work permits took time to be approved. Preseason is offering that opportunity.
In the last few seasons, Sporting KC has missed out on transfers the team needed to stay among the best in the league. Vermes expressed his satisfaction with transfers this offseason.
“It’s not an easy process, finding players for Major League Soccer,” Vermes said, “and I thought that our entire staff did a great job in not only identifying but working together to secure the acquisition of all those targets and more importantly trying to get them in so they have time to train with us.
“We have to constantly understand that there’s a 34[-game] regular season run,” he added. “And we have to be very focused game to game and we have to understand that all points matter. You have to go out there with your best effort in all of the games that we play and you have to give every thing you have and the good thing is is that we have competition in all positions and we try to use that our advantage over the course of the season.”
Here’s a closer look at Sporting KC:
SPORTING KC SEASON PREVIEW
2016 FINISH: 13-13-8, 48 points (8th in the Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Ilie Sanchez, Erik Palmer-Brown, Gerso Fernandes, Igor Juliao, Latif Blessing, Soony Saad, Colton Storm
KEY LOSSES: Chance Myers, Nuno Coelho, Jacob Peterson
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Gerso Fernandes.
Sporting KC has needed a player who can make a difference on the right wing ever since the departure of Krisztian Nemeth. Fernandes, who arrives from Portuguese side Belenenses, looks to be the answer. The failed signing of Justin Mapp was supposed to be a key provider there last season, but Mapp barely saw playing time with injuries. Brad Davis started out well, too, but was never a long-term option. Fernandes, Vermes said after a preseason draw with the Colorado Rapids, appears to be fitting in with the team well and provides the pace and creativity on the wing that the team has lacked in recent seasons.
PRESSURE IS ON: Graham Zusi.
Zusi wasn’t the answer to Sporting’s attacking trouble on the right wing as likely will move to right back after Bruce Arena deployed him there with the U.S. Men’s National Team. Zusi played defensively for a few games, most notably a 2-2 home draw with the LA Galaxy. The pressure is on Zusi this season to find a foothold in this Sporting KC lineup at the new position.
The goal for Sporting this year is to reach a tipping point.
“We definitely want to win championships and obviously the biggest one is MLS Cup but we’re very focused on having a very consistent regular season this year, which hasn’t been the case. The last three seasons, we’ve been up and down,” Feilhaber said.
Vermes and his staff captured the correct attacking targets to accomplish this. The main challenge for the team in 2017 is implementing those players like right wing newcomer Gerso Fernandes effectively alongside a robust core of veterans.
“I think that the staff was very intent on getting certain players this season more than in seasons’ past,” Feilhaber said. “I think we knew that we had a few things that were missing from our team the last couple years and we wanted to make sure that that wasn’t the case this season. So we went out and got pieces here and there to solidify the rest of the group.
“I think that the players and the coaches and the front office all believe that we have a very good core within our group, now we just have to find the right pieces to fit in with that core.”
Feilhaber said he looked forward to playing alongside former FC Barcelona academy player Ilie Sanchez.
“I think he’ll help a whole lot in terms of keeping possession and finding balls for me and Roger (Espinoza) a little bit higher up the field,” Feilhaber said.
Sporting KC goes into yet another season led by Matt Besler, Feilhaber and Graham Zusi. That veteran core of players that hasn’t changed for the last three seasons is clearly important to the success of this Sporting team. Vermes said he wasn’t entirely sure how well the new additions to the team would adjust by the beginning of the season. Zusi, a familiar piece to the lineup, looks to be transitioning to the right back position.
“I think it’s too early to project how that will all shape out,” Vermes said. “When you bring new players in, the first thing you do is you have to spend time working with them to find out what they’re made of and so for me, that’s the big thing is I need to spend some time with some of our guys. And the key word there is time and as that starts to evolve I’ll have a better feel as time goes.”
The club also brought back a couple familiar faces. Former Sporting KC forward Soony Saad returns in 2017 for a second stint at his old club. Saad impressed in two seasons in the Thai Premier League with BEC Tero Sasana and Pattaya United. Sporting added former loaned player Igor Juliao again with another loan from Brazilian club Fluminense. Juliao started for Sporting during the 2014 season at right back.
Sporting KC also welcomes back U.S. U-20 center back Erik Palmer-Brown from a loan to FC Porto B. Palmer-Brown showed some promise over 10 total appearances across 2014 and 2015 and he should return from the productive loan spell as a viable competitor for minutes on the Sporting KC back line.
An unsung hero, however, has left the club. Jacob Peterson filled in as a surprise threat on the right wing last season, and his departure to Atlanta United deprives the team of vital depth. Sporting will look forward to Fernandes featuring on the right wing as a solid starter.
“Obviously some of the quality that we were missing out on the wing in terms of a different kind of player, a guy that can give us a lot of speed on the wing, can give us also and little bit of a one-on-one, attacking potential out there on the wing,” Feilhaber said. “We went out and grabbed a couple of those guys that can help us out in that sense.”
“I think we’ve shown that we’re a very difficult team to beat regardless,” Feulhaber added, “so now with these little bits and pieces we should be able to kinda just push on back over to the top and be in contention for a championship.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP