Avi Creditor: Sporting KC relentless in its championship pursuit

Despite a 2012 regular season campaign that earned plenty of acclaim, Sporting Kansas City is going to great lengths to ensure that 2013 includes an even greater level of success.
When referee Allen Chapman's final whistle blew at Livestrong Sporting Park on Nov. 7, it signified a crossroads for Sporting Kansas City.

For the MLS franchise that has been on the cutting edge of innovation, whether with its state-of-the-art soccer-specific stadium or with its social media and online functionality, the 2-1 aggregate defeat in the playoffs to the Houston Dynamo sparked a big question. Would that ambition and ability to reinvent carry over to a roster that was going to have to go through some changes?

After all, another highly successful regular season was met with a postseason disappointment at the hands of the Dynamo, and the potential for a step back certainly seemed to be growing. Following a week in which it seemed like every day was met with a new significant Sporting Kansas City announcement, though, that question lingers no more.

During an offseason in which big-market Los Angeles is pondering how to replace David Beckham and big-market New York continues to make notable moves, including dumping Rafa Marquez and signing veteran Brazilian midfielder Juninho, it is Sporting Kansas City that has commanded the offseason headlines. SKC has demonstrated its staying power and intentions for the coming season with a relentless slew of acquisitions.

Sporting KC's ability to adapt, replenish and reload -- at least on paper -- has showcased its savvy in navigating an MLS offseason and maximizing its resources in a progressive way. The weeks following the conclusion of the MLS Cup final can be as integral a part of the team-building process as the preseason months that follow in a league where annual change is a constant, and Sporting KC has positioned itself quite well to transition into next season.

The club's recent moves have turned heads league-wide. Sporting KC traded for Benny Feilhaber, adding an experienced, motivated playmaker and World Cup veteran into a new environment where he can thrive. Team brass was able to coax reigning MLS Defender of the Year Matt Besler to sign a new deal, ensuring that the league's stingiest back line from a season ago stayed intact, with Besler eschewing potential European offers to stay home.

With the club competing on three fronts this season, in the CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and MLS, adding capable depth became even more of a priority. Enter Ike Opara and Yann Songo'o, two defenders with sharp pedigrees who can get started in a winning environment without the pressure to contribute from day one.

One of the clubs' biggest need areas was on the front line, with consistent goal-scoring from multiple attackers being Sporting KC's biggest weakness. Of the 10 teams that made the playoffs in 2012, only Vancouver's 35 regular-season goals were fewer than Sporting KC's 42. A possible remedy to that problem could be delivered on Tuesday. Sporting KC is set to reveal its newest Designated Player, and according to persistent reports from South America, it is slated to be Argentine and former LDU Quito striker Claudio Bieler, a 28-year-old with a solid resume who is coming off a 20-goal season in Ecuador.

With all of the pros have come some cons. Losing integral midfielder Roger Espinoza on a free transfer to Wigan Athletic is a big blow that should not go overlooked despite all of the new bells and whistles. The fact that the club failed to win a championship with him in tow despite his remaining transfer value lingering after the conclusion of the Olympics makes his departure for nothing sting a bit extra (however, it should be noted that because he left on a free transfer, Sporting KC maintains his MLS rights should he return to the league). Fellow central midfielder Julio Cesar is another departing player whose contributions for the club's high-pressure style perhaps flew under the radar.

Rebuilding that chemistry in the heart of manager Peter Vermes' formation will be the biggest undertaking of the preseason. Spots are free in the midfield for eager competitors such as former Barcelona academy product Oriol Rosell and Peterson "Haitian Xavi" Joseph to stake their claims to add to the returning starting core that includes Graham Zusi, Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong, Auerlien Collin and iron man goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen.

The rest of the Eastern Conference is not sitting idly by as Sporting KC makes its moves. New York, despite not yet naming a new head coach, has improved with its slew of moves, as most would expect the big-spending club to do. Two-time defending conference champion Houston's core has remained intact. Even Philadelphia seems poised to put its 2012 stinker in the rear-view mirror and churn out an improved product.

When the curtain opens on the upcoming season, though, Robb Heineman and his technical staff's relentless determination to get it right will have paid off with glaring bulls eyes on the backs of all Sporting KC shirts, with the club entering the season as the conference, and perhaps overall MLS favorite. 

It is tradition in Kansas City to "paint the wall" on the concourse at Livestrong Sporting Park with the year of a major accomplishment, whether it is a MLS Cup or a U.S. Open Cup. The extremely early returns indicate that Sporting KC has every intention of adding at least one "2013" to the gradually growing collection.


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