Going into 2016, the team dynamic for Sporting KC will hardly change, even though some high-profile additions have arrived.
Peter Vermes’ squad is still built on the shoulders of a group of veteran leaders like Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. The group of veterans has grown with the additions of veteran midfielders Brad Davis and Justin Mapp.
SKC will also look to continue the progression of some young players that had outstanding seasons in 2015. The presence of several candidates for starting positions will be valuable for the team as it enters the CONCACAF Champions League.
“We’ve got a lot of depth within the group it’s really about us rotating the roster around, especially with us having the CONCACAF Champions League and the fact that we’ve added that into the mix,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We’ve got to be careful and smart about player rotation.”
If Sporting KC can avoid injury trouble that has plagued the team in recent years, it can use its depth and experience in this league to make a run at more trophies. After winning the U.S. Open Cup last season before losing to eventual champions Portland Timbers in the playoffs, Sporting KC will be back with the same core of players that has proven successful in years past.
Here’s a closer look at Sporting Kansas City in 2016:
SPORTING KC SEASON PREVIEW
2015 FINISH: 14-11-9, 6th in the Western Conference
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Brad Davis, Justin Mapp, Nuno Andre Coelho, Lawrence Olum
KEY LOSSES: Krisztian Nemeth
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Justin Mapp. Joining from a Montreal Impact team that utilized him well on the wings, Mapp will be a refreshing addition to Sporting’s lineup. For a team that has had trouble on the wings for the last few years, Mapp and Brad Davis will add lots of width to the formation for Sporting KC. Expect more of a conventional team in 2016; now that Krisztian Nemeth will no longer line up on the left, Sporting will have to use many more combinations in the wide areas to move the ball.
PRESSURE IS ON: Graham Zusi. The USMNT midfielder hasn’t looked himself but for a few brilliant appearances last season. Now that the concerns with his absences due to national team duty may be over with, Zusi needs to re-establish himself as one of the league’s best. With the additions of Davis and Mapp, Zusi can be utilized in the central midfield more than on the wings.
Stability has been the name of the game for Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes. His team has made the MLS playoffs each of the last six seasons. For the last three or four, that team has consisted of the same core of players.
These are players like Zusi and Besler, who have been mainstays with Sporting for the last four years. Feilhaber, an addition in the 2013 season, had a breakout year last season with 10 goals and 15 assists.
The 2015 season might have been called a rebuilding year after Sporting’s roster overhaul, but the team hardly slowed down, making the playoffs and losing to the eventual MLS Cup winners. In 2016, forward Krisztian Nemeth has gone to Qatar and will be replaced with less flashy, but more experienced veterans in Brad Davis and Justin Mapp. Vermes said knowing what it takes to succeed in the league is one thing, but keeping the desire to do it is another.
“I think has to be a happy medium between having guys that have experience but also keeping their hunger for success,” Vermes said. “I think the good thing is we have guys that are very hungry for success and winning and that’s what I look for in the group. Right now, I see that.”
With wingers Davis and Mapp adding some width to the team, SKC is given the option to shift Graham Zusi to a number of positions. Vermes highlighted Zusi’s ability to be a mercurial player in both wing positions as well as the central midfield and even up top as a false nine, which Sporting has deployed Zusi at a few times.
“The great thing about [Zusi] is he’s extremely versatile,” Vermes said. “I see him being able to play at least both outside positions. sometimes he can even play like a false nine. It’s great because it’s an opportunity to do different things against opponents. He’ll be valuable and versatile over the course of the season.”
Vermes compared Zusi’s versatility to Landon Donovan’s. In his last season with the Galaxy, Donovan lined up anywhere along the front line and made an impact. Zusi’s position won’t be set in stone and will change depending on the players available week by week, Vermes said.
Sporting KC will also continue to sharpen the skills of some young standouts from 2015. Fullbacks Amadou Dia and Saad Abdul-Salaam both made 22 appearances in their rookie years. Winger Connor Hallisey was also called upon a fair amount in his rookie 2015 season.
“We have a good, experienced group and at the same time we have some young players that got some real playing time which led to some real experience on the field last season,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “I hope that they’re going to continue their progression. That’s going to be the big challenge for us this year: to make sure those guys keep growing as players.”
A familiar face who has returned to Sporting KC is Lawrence Olum, who played for the club for three seasons before leaving at the end of the 2014 season to play for Kedah FA in Malaysia.
Vermes said Olum left on good terms and reached out to return to Kansas City when he decided to leave Malaysia.
“The big thing for us is I’ve always been under the opinion that I want guys that are very ambitious,” Vermes said, “and if you want guys that are very ambitious, you also have to allow them to leave when they want to. Lawrence wanted to go try his hand at an opportunity that came his way and I was like ‘OK, if that’s what you want to do, no problem. Go ahead,’ and then he decided he wanted to come back and he reached out. I thought he’d fit into our team well.”
Previously, Vermes has handled his relationships with players in this way. When Roger Espinoza left Kansas City to play for Wigan, he returned two years later and said a return was always the plan after testing himself in the Premier League.
“He left on good terms, I understood why he did it,” Vermes said. “So now he’s back with us and the great thing is we don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to adjust him to what we want to do, because he already knows.”
The only totally unfamiliar face entering the team this season is 30-year-old central defender Andre Nuno Coelho, who will compete with Ike Opara for a spot beside Matt Besler on the back line. Vermes said Coelho is a good distributing centerback with lots of experience. Coelho joined Kansas City from Turkish side Balikesirspor and has played for Portuguese sides Braga, Porto and Sporting CP in the past.
“[Coelho is a] very experienced guy,” Vermes said. “He has excellent habits in the position and is very good on the ball. At the same time, he has a very good understanding of his movement and his defending within the back line.”
With only 25 players on the roster, Sporting KC is looking to add yet another. Vermes said a signing of a young foreign forward is around the corner. Though there has been a revolving door of supporting players through the last few seasons, Vermes’ team returns for 2016 with the same formula for success and many of the same players.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP