Keith Hickey: Sporting Kansas City and Graham Zusi gearing up for MLS Cup run

In an exclusive interview with, the Sporting Kansas City star and U.S. national team member talked about the upcoming MLS season.
Silverware. That's what Sporting Kansas City is eying this year, according to midfielder Graham Zusi.

Since new ownership took over a stagnant Kansas City Wizards franchise in 2006, the club has undergone a transformation, drawing huge crowds to a gleaming new stadium and establishing itself as one of the leading lights in American soccer.

After topping the Eastern Conference two years running only to bow out of the playoffs to eventual MLS Cup finalist Houston, Zusi is adamant that Sporting's eyes are firmly on MLS Cup.

"I think the past two years, we've had that goal of winning the MLS Cup," Zusi told
"That goal's not gonna differ this year. We were able to win the U.S. Open Cup last year, which was a big step for us. We know now what it takes to grind out those wins, 'cause a lot of the time they're not pretty.

"That next step is hopefully winning the Supporters' Shield, but that's not everything. MLS Cup is the ultimate goal for this group."

If Sporting is to lift American soccer's top club prize, it will have to adjust to some personnel changes. Midfield anchor Roger Espinoza took his talents to Lancashire, signing with Wigan Athletic, and last season's top scorer, Kei Kamara, is already a hit while on short-term loan to Norwich City and won't be back until May.

"(Roger Espinoza) was one piece of the puzzle," Zusi said. "We had more pieces than just Roger. Our back line was incredible. Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin are probably the best group of center backs in the league. You add Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic on the outsides, who are incredible defenders that can also provide plenty of attack as well.

"I'm not taking anything away from Roger, because he was a huge part of our team last year, but I don't foresee the loss of him being a huge factor in our team defensively. I think you're going to see a team that's just as good as last year, if not a little bit better."

One of the newer pieces is Benny Feilhaber, a World Cup veteran who didn't quite fit with the New England Revolution after joining MLS last year. Sporting snapped the U.S. national team midfielder up in a trade for two draft picks and allocation money, and Zusi predicts that the technical ability and creativity of the 28-year-old former Arhus man could help elevate KC's style of play.

"Benny's a guy who's great on the ball, and what he brings to our team, which I think we might have lacked a little bit last year, is slipping people in behind the defense," the midfielder said of his new teammate. "A lot of our attack was crosses from the outside, having some of our big guys get on the end of it. This year I think you'll see Benny and Naga (Brazilian midfielder Paulo Nagamura) getting a lot of possession in front of the other team's back line.

"Our runs off the ball, and behind them, are going to be pretty lethal this year, because Benny has that ability to put people in behind the defense and honestly, I think we did lack that a little bit last year. He's going to be a huge component in our team and I think you're going to see a lot of chances created because he's on the ball.

"You're going to see a lot more possession-oriented soccer from us. I don't think we'll really give teams a chance to have the ball too much and threaten us."

Another new signing with the potential for a big impact is Argentine striker Claudio Bieler, a star for LDU Quito who helped the Ecuadorian team to an unlikely Copa Libertadores triumph in 2008.

"Claudio might not be the physical being that Kei was, but he's a very strong player, and he can really hold the ball up well. He brings the ability for us to play the ball up to him and have faith that he's gonna hold the ball up and allow the supporting players around him to get up and then lay the ball off and turn and get in behind the defense. He's more physical and gifted in the air than he may look or people will think.

"He's a true forward. He puts himself in very dangerous positions and he can finish the ball as well."

With so many pieces of the puzzle in place, Kansas City will give headaches to a lot of teams this year. And the team might even add that MLS Cup it wants so badly.