Keeping the Hunger
Peter Vermes had 28 exit interviews with his players in January, and the next day he was on a plane bound for Europe to scout. And with his players assembling for preseason camp that month, there wasn't much time for Sporting Kansas City to bask in the glow of its second MLS Cup in franchise history.
So what about this season? Here are 10 things to know:
1] How effectively does Eric Kronberg replace Jimmy Nielsen as the No. 1 goalkeeper? Defender Matt Besler, his teammates and the coaches express full confidence in Kronberg, who has only played intermittently in his seven seasons with Sporting. Vermes, entering his fifth full season as Sporting’s coach, says mistakes will happen, but that’s normal.
“The big thing for him is going to be how he handles those mistakes," Vermes says. "When you've paid your dues and you've been such a solid citizen as Eric has over the years, a player like that deserves that opportunity."
2] Kronberg's backup, Andy Gruenebaum, knows the territory. Sporting has a penchant for drafting or acquiring players with Kansas City ties, and for Gruenebaum it's a homecoming that just made good business sense. The Overland Park native and Blue Valley North High School graduate has a wealth of MLS experience, having started in 79 games for the Columbus Crew since 2006. And with fellow Mustang Jon Kempin progressing nicely, there should be plenty of good competition at the goalkeeping position.
3] A Sporting quintet has divided attention between Kansas City and Brazil. Besler, Rockhurst High School alum Seth Sinovic, Graham Zusi, Chance Myers and Benny Feilhaber have been in camp in Brazil, this year’s World Cup host, with the U.S. national team.
"Anytime you get to join up with some of the best players in the country and you get to play in front of Coach (Jurgen) Klinsmann, it's always a positive experience, and it's something you get excited for," Besler says.
4] With those call-ups to the national team, certain challenges arise. For players like Besler, the task is compartmentalizing from team to team and managing the travel. For the coaches, it's how they reshuffle the roster at a time when Sporting plays some crucial games in the Eastern Conference, where team depth is imperative. They also have to try to keep those players from getting distracted.
"Obviously the World Cup is a great opportunity for every player," Vermes says. "And in their situation, what can transpire sometimes is you can take your eye off the ball a little bit. As much as I know that those guys are all very good professionals, it's our job to make sure that we keep them focused when they're here."
5] There's no such thing as an easy match because of Sporting's status as MLS champions. They're not sneaking up on anyone, and the tough games aren't a surprise to them.
"It's not as if we're a one-hit wonder and now all of a sudden everybody's going to start playing us differently," Vermes says. "I think that one of the reasons why we've been successful over the last few years is because every game has been a difficult game. So I truly don't see it being that much different going into this season."
6] Even for the guys without Team USA responsibilities, it's another demanding schedule. Sporting’s year started with the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic in February, and after the MLS season opener against the Seattle Sounders March 8, the team is in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League against Cruz Azul March 12 and 19. Sporting is also competing for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which it won in 2012.
7] Circle April 5 on the calendar. It all started in a preseason game in 2011 when things got a little chippy, benches cleared and a fracas broke out on the field. Although Vermes downplays the rivalry with Real Salt Lake — "I think they make that a much bigger rivalry than we do" — the two clubs have played some of the most intense matches in the league, as evidenced by the MLS Cup final. It should be an entertaining rematch at Sporting Park.
8] Several candidates could emerge as breakout players in 2014. Besler singled out Sinovic and Dom Dwyer as guys who could make a big impact. Sinovic's huge playoff goal against New England helped Sporting win the two-game aggregate series 4-3.
"For the last two or three seasons, he's been one of our most consistent players," Besler says. "And last season, he was probably our best player throughout the entire year."
Vermes is eager to see how former University of North Carolina star Mikey Lopez can contribute, and he's excited about midfielder Sal Zizzo, who played for the Portland Timbers the last three seasons.
9] There may be some different players on the roster, but the strategy remains the same. Sporting has conceded 57 goals in the last two seasons, the fewest in MLS by a whopping 18 goals, so the commitment to defense looks to be a staple again.
"The challenge for us is, how quickly can we get all of the players to adapt to our style and get everybody on the same page?" Besler says. "Once we do that, I think we have everything in place to hopefully repeat."
10] Playing with the same intensity is crucial in 2014. "We've had a very good consistency over the last few years," Vermes says. "And if you keep that hunger and concentration, then the consistency will be there. That's what you have to have in this league to find success."
photos: Gary Rohman