'14 Season Preview: SKC aims to collect more silverware

10:58 AM, Mar 4, 2014   |    comments
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Kansas City, KS (SportsNetwork.com) - The troubling scenario for reigning champions of a professional sports league is that there is no room for improvement, and in a league with so much parity, the likelihood of reaching the same pinnacle of success in successive seasons is quite slim.

There have been just three repeat winners of MLS Cup in the league's 18-year history, and after clinching the title in dramatic fashion in 2013, Sporting Kansas City is hoping to become the fourth.

Sporting enjoyed an extraordinary season last term, finishing second in the Eastern Conference just one point back of Red Bull New York in the race for the Supporters' Shield and edging Real Salt Lake, on home soil, in penalties for the postseason crown.

It has a been a rather prolific stretch for Sporting Kansas City in recent seasons as last year's MLS Cup achievement marked the second consecutive campaign with a trophy after the club also claimed the U.S. Open Cup title in 2012.

Participating in an additional competition (CONCACAF Champions League) will grant Sporting with an extra opportunity to add to its trophy cabinet in 2014, and with minimal turnover to the roster, head coach Peter Vermes believes his side is well-positioned to do just that.

"I do like the group that we have," Vermes told MLSsoccer.com during the offseason. "It never means that it's set, by any means. But I also think, with the fact that we are playing the competitions we're in, and how fast we have to get ready for Champions League, we need to have consistency in our group. I think that's an important aspect going forward."

Competing in the CONCACAF Champions League has forced Sporting to accelerate its preseason preparation, but Vermes is confident that roster continuity can help Kansas City overcome any potential pitfalls.

"The first two days are normally a little rusty, but the guys are further ahead than normal," Vermes said after a training session early on in preseason. "Much of that has to do with us returning a consistent group of players from last year's squad that understand the challenges and expectations ahead of them."

According to Dom Dwyer, Sporting's ability to bring the vast majority of its title-winning side back for another year has raised expectations, and the midfielder is optimistic that the club can make it three consecutive years with a trophy following a seven-year silverware drought.

"Last year it was MLS Cup," Dwyer told reporters prior to leaving for preseason camp. "This year it's got to be MLS Cup and Open Cup and Champions League as well. You've always got to be optimistic, and I really believe we can do all that."

The most glaring omission from Sporting's preseason preparations has been striker Teal Bunbury, who was dealt to the New England Revolution in February.

But the club did manage to bring in some additional firepower during the offseason, signing winger Sal Zizzo in trade with the Portland Timbers. The 26-year-old already has earned rave reviews from his head coach.

"He's going to fit into the way we play really well, and I'm not even talking about the goals," Vermes said after a preseason training session. "He's an exceptional winger. He's got a great attitude. He's got a good mind for the game, and he's definitely going to be a good addition to our team."

Zizzo joins a stable of supreme attacking talent at Vermes' disposal. Strikers C.J. Sapong and Claudio Bieler should be the beneficiaries of some exceptional service from Graham Zusi, Benny Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura, and Sporting also boasts some supplementary attackers like Dwyer and Soony Saad to provide cover for the club's first-choice forwards.

Scoring at will has become a luxury for Sporting given the club's stout defensive unit, which yielded an MLS-low 30 goals in 34 regular season games. Kansas City will be without star goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen following the Dane's retirement at the conclusion of last season, but the acquisition of Andy Gruenebaum and the continuity of keeping Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Aurelien Collin and Chance Myers together bodes well for Sporting's outlook in 2014.

ADDITIONS: Andy Gruenebaum (GK), Sal Zizzo (M).

LOSSES: Teal Bunbury (F), Jimmy Nielsen (GK).

OUTLOOK: Continuity has been the name of the game for Sporting following its MLS Cup triumph. Bringing in only a few pieces has afforded Vermes the luxury of getting a head start on preparations for the new season as the vast majority of his players are already accustomed to playing with each other. Of course, continuity means little if talent is absent, which it is not in Kansas City. Sporting is one of the most well-balanced sides in MLS, possessing speed, tenacity, organization and passing range all over the pitch. While it's unusual for teams to take home multiple trophies in a given season, expect Sporting to contend on all fronts.

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