Sporting Kansas City 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season
The pressures of repeating will be Sporting Kansas City's story to watch in 2014, but what additional storylines will complete the team's season preview?
In the final part of our 19-part series, we will take an in-depth look at the most intriguing plots surrounding the defending champions this season. The number and player to watch, as well as the match that should immediately be circled on your calendar, will be delved into with great detail.
Read on for your comprehensive guide to 2014.
Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, credit all statistics to Squawka. All data collected is licensed from Opta Sports.
Before we preview the coming year, here is MLS's complete list of offseason acquisitions and departures that helped mold this season's version of the club.
|M||Sal Zizzo||Trade from Portland|
|GK||Andy Gruenebaum||Trade from Columbus|
|M||Alex Martinez||MLS SuperDraft|
|F||Teal Bunbury||Traded to New England|
The Story to Watch: The Pressure to Repeat
For the past three seasons, Sporting Kansas City were the little engines of MLS.
Head coach Peter Vermes' men slowly encountered obstacle after obstacle en route to the top of the mountain before ultimately reaching the pinnacle in 2013. Now, with a bullseye permanently tattooed on their back, SKC will face new challenges in 2014.
Everyone wants their shot at the defending champs.
According to Ben Felderstein of the University Daily Kansan, midfielder Graham Zusi is well aware of the task that awaits:
The hardest thing to do in sports is to repeat. We're coming into this season with a huge target on our backs. Our goals are to win as many games as possible. We want to win the Champions League, the Open Cup, the MLS Cup and after that win the Club Championship.
Such lofty expectations, but an attitude required of a champion nonetheless.
Only three clubs have ever been able to repeat in MLS history. D.C. United inaugurated the league with the two pillars of a dynasty in 1996 and 1997. The Houston Dynamo haunted the dreams of the New England Revolution in 2006 and 2007. The Los Angeles Galaxy returned the favor to the Dynamo, punishing them in consecutive finals from 2011-12.
You don't want to win it all. You have to believe you can win it all.
If Sporting are able to maintain that competitive edge throughout the 2014 campaign and avoid the dreaded hangover, they'll be in a prime position to join the Mount Rushmore of back-to-back MLS Cup champions.
The Numbers to Watch: 0.43 vs. 0.27
It's easy to see why Kei Kamara saw his future in Europe last season. The Sierra Leonean led Sporting Kansas City with 0.62 goals per 90 minutes in 2013. He would transfer to Middlesborough FC late in the season.
In a distant second, however, was Claudio Bieler.
The Argentine finished 2013 with a club-best 10 goals but didn't quite measure up when dissecting his numbers. His 0.43 goals-per-90 ratio barely ranked him in the top 20 among MLS players who featured in at least 1,000 minutes last season. Decent, but not exactly what you expect from a player who's role was to be that of a go-to goalscorer.
Falling out of favor, Bieler would be replaced by Dom Dwyer at regular season's end. The 23-year-old finished with two goals in 2013, and his 0.27 goals per 90 minutes ranked as the club's third-best average. It was enough for him to predominantly feature in the postseason, totaling 272 minutes of playing time.
He scored just one goal (0.33 goals-per-90 ratio).
Bieler managed to do the same with 187 fewer opportunities (1.06 goals-per-90 ratio).
It didn't keep the club from ultimately reaching its goal in 2013. But entering the 2014 campaign, finding an elite replacement for Kamara's productivity remains a priority. Either Bieler or Dwyer will have to improve their lethality at the forward position.
Whomever manages to do so will provide SKC with the assassin required to repeat as champions.
The Player to Watch: Aurelien Collin
He had no business being on the pitch.
Three months have passed, yet the perception hasn't changed. The physical play Aurelien Collin is now synonymous with what went unpunished in the second half of the MLS Cup final. A tactical foul in the 69th minute—six minutes before his equalizer—should have been his second yellow and final contribution for the 2013 season.
History will show it wasn't.
What history will show, however, is that Collin committed the most fouls of any defender last season. His 65 rash challenges across all competitions was 18 more than the second-closest defender (Rodney Wallace). Collin also led the league with 15 cautions in 2013, 11 of which were whistled for mistimed tackles.
That was also the most in MLS.
With the reputation Collin has for leaving his opponents black and blue, this is starting to turn into the colors to watch.
Yet for all of his savagery on the pitch, the Frenchman did manage to total 521 defensive actions last season. That—you guessed it—was enough to lead the league. At center-back, Collin ranked No. 1 in interceptions (153) and clearances (354). Just to paint the all-around picture, he also won the most headed duels in 2013. His 164 aerials won allowed him to lead all defenders with three headed goals.
So, no, Collin's brute physicality isn't aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It is, however, effective. As long as the Frenchman continues to find the perfect balance, his statistical performance will be the most enjoyable of any defender in 2014.
The Match to Watch: Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City
Sporting already exorcised those Houston Dynamo demons. They exited the victor in two separate bouts with Real Salt Lake, so there’s no need to look forward to a rematch in 2014.
Instead, how about a match with genuine dislike.
SKC’s first step toward a repeat will be taken nearly 2,000 miles from Sporting Park. A visit to Seattle will serve as the club’s first test of the season. It’s a test they’ve miserably failed in the past. In eight head-to-head matches during the regular season, Kansas City are an abysmal 1-6-1. The sporting-blue club, however, do have the benefit of besting the Seattle Sounders in the 2012 U.S. Open Cup final.
The 1-1 draw crowned SKC in penalty kicks and ended Seattle’s reign. The victory prevented a fourth consecutive Lamar Hunt trophy for the Sounders.
As an added bonus, the clash between Sporting and Seattle will be the initial kick to the 2014 MLS season. All eyes will feast on the two as the anticipated start to the year is finally upon us.
The opening kick is officially 24 hours away.
Eduardo Mendez is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and analyst for Opta Sports. Follow him on Twitter for more insight on a variety of sports topics. Follow @Mendez_FC