No team suffered at the hands of fate in 2015 more than Sporting Kansas City. Not because of any bad luck that struck them in the regular season – though, like so many teams, they dealt with a number of injuries and bad breaks – but because of what happened in the knockout round of the Western Conference playoffs against the eventual champion Portland Timbers. There’s too much to relive here, but needless to say Sporting was done wrong by both the soccer gods and both posts of the goal at Providence Park in Portland.
So what now? Sporting isn’t a club to sit around and whine about bad luck, but there’s only so much Peter Vermes and company can do within the confines of the salary budget to get better. At the very least, Sporting will want to replace Krisztian Nemeth, the Hungarian winger sold to a Qatari club after one season because Sporting couldn’t meet his salary demands. Veterans Brad Davis and Justin Mapp have been added to give depth on the flanks.
The Big Question
Which Dom Dwyer will show up in 2016? It’s not that Dwyer, the hyperactive English bulldog of a forward who scored 22 times in his breakthrough season of 2014, played poorly last year. But the drop in output from 22 goals to 12 dramatically changed things for Sporting on the attacking end of the field. Benny Feilhaber picked up some of the slack, and Krisztian Nemeth hit for 10 in his first MLS season, but the former can’t be counted on if Feilhaber is also tasked with playmaking duties, and Nemeth was suddenly sold in January. As of yet, no obvious candidate to cover for that lost production exists.
It’s alway worth noting that Dwyer will become a father in September, as he and his soccer-playing wife Sydney LeRoux are excpecting their first child. Parenthood is a joy, but it doesn’t always make for the best performance at work. If Dwyer can get off to a fast start and navigate the life-changing event coming late in the year, Sporting will be happy.
Once upon a time, there were real questions over whether former Derby County and New England Revolution man Benny Feilhaber would fit into Sporting Kansas City boss Peter Vermes’s high-energy, physical style. Feilhaber had never been particularly known for his defensive work, so slotting him into center midfield at a club known for insane fitness and workrate requirements seemed odd.
But Feilhaber has blossomed under Vermes’s tutelage and might even be the reason why Sporting is pulling away from that trademark tendency to kick opponents around the park. Last year Feilhaber put together a marvelous campaign, scoring 10 goals and providing 15 assists in league play while enabling Sporting to play a more attractive brand of soccer in the process. The performance was good enough to get Feilhaber into the conversation for Most Valuable Player, though he ultimately finished third behind Sebastian Giovinco and Kei Kamara. If the voters had followed the spirit of the award to a tee, he could have been higher.
Feilhaber’s creative abilities made up for a lot of Sporting deficiencies in 2015. With Nemeth gone, his role as chance creator and goalscorer takes on even greater importance, with the latter likely dictating he take more shots than in recent years.
From The Dugout
Peter Vermes’ side has seen plenty of roster movement this offseason, but to some degree he’s embracing change. “Figuring out how to keep yourself [salary-cap] compliant and at the same time competitive – the more success you have in this league, the more your team falls apart, because players get more money, bonuses and they want to move on,” he said. “So you're doing everything you can to kind of keep it all together. It's not easy. The allocation money that has come into the league with the TAM money, it's become very coveted by a lot of teams as well. Especially in a small market like ours, it can be very beneficial.”
Even so, Vermes hasn’t altered SKC's 2016 goals. “I don’t think anything really changes,” he said. “The difference is, we really go after it – we want to win. If you look at the last four years, we've won three different competitions, two US Open Cups and one MLS Cup, and we're going to keep trying to go down that road.”
Another CONCACAF Champions League campaign adds to the workload, but it’s an addition Vermes welcomes. “It's definitely a priority, but it's a difficult competition to maneuver through based on the fact that you're playing Saturday-Wednesday, Saturday-Wednesday. It becomes a lot of games in a short period of time. The travel is very difficult on the team. But we just look at it as another opportunity to win another championship. We're going to go after it, no doubt.”
From The Locker Room
In some ways, the rather bizarre way that Sporting Kansas City was eliminated from the MLS playoffs last season made it easier for midfielder Benny Feilhaber to accept the outcome as simple fate. “I’ve never seen a penalty hit both posts,” Feilhaber says of an SKC attempt that would have won the game if it had gone in. “They must be a team of destiny.”
More than ever, Feilhaber understands the cardinal rule of the league’s postseason: “If you get hot at the right time, that’s tough to beat.”
Though Kansas City striker Krisztian Nemeth left in the offseason, the club acquired veteran midfielders Justin Mapp and Brad Davis, which makes the team’s competition for starting midfield spots tough. As Feilhaber says, “Whoever doesn’t get to play isn’t going to be happy.”
More than ever in 2016, the team will rely on the talent of Dom Dwyer to rack up the goals. The midfielders who are able to help him do that will likely win the race to score a start. “There is a lot of parity in this league,” notes Feilhaber. “Teams change every year, so every year, you have to have a different tactical plan.”
This Is Home
- CHILDREN'S MERCY PARK
- CAPACITY: 18,467
- OPENED: June 9, 2011
- LOCATION Kansas City, KS
Fan’s Insider Tip
James Starritt (@JamesStarritt): Children’s Mercy Park is a one of the real gems of MLS. The $200m palace was designed to be more that just be a stadium; it is a landmark and truly a world-class facility. The scintillating game day atmosphere has gone a long way towards the current sellout streak which topped 70 games by the end of last season.
Of course, Sporting is more than a stadium. There has been considerable recent success. An MLS Cup and two US Open Cups have raised expectations and made SKC a source of considerable local pride.
Aside from the inevitable home town swagger there is also an welcoming spirit towards visiting fans – we want you to come and see what we have. Stopping by the Cauldron Tailgate in your away team colors might make you the target of some friendly banter but you’ll likely be handed a drink or two. It's a good place to trade a scarf and meet other fans. Parking lots open three hours before kickoff: look for a blue bus.
Take time to walk the stadium concourse pre-game, it really is fantastic. Don’t call us ‘Sporting Kansas’. Eat lots of BBQ – the best is at Q39.