'13 Season Preview: Time for Sporting to deliver

4:20 PM, Feb 22, 2013   |    comments
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Kansas City, KS (Sports Network) - The Kansas City Wizards have come a long way since missing the playoffs in 2010.

For starters, the club became Sporting Kansas City prior to the start of the 2011 season, and got a new home in Sporting Park.

In the two subsequent seasons, Kansas City has finished on top of the Eastern Conference and has just about completed a successful transition from MLS also- ran to one of the top franchises in the league.

But there is still one more hurdle for head coach Peter Vermes and his team to clear.

Despite its success in the regular season, Sporting has failed to reach the MLS Cup in each of the past two seasons, something that has not been lost on Kansas City CEO Robb Heineman.

"This is a time in our organization that it's time to go for it," Heineman said. "And it's a time not to just try to win an Open Cup in a year and say that's great. It's a time to win multiple cups in multiple years and string them together. Now is the time to do that."

Sporting did collect its first trophy since 2004 last term, winning the U.S. Open Cup by defeating three-time defending champion Seattle, but Heineman is right to demand more in the postseason from his team.

Leading scorer Kei Kamara is currently on loan with English Premiership side Norwich City until early May, when Norwich will have the option of making the switch permanent.

Kamara led the club with 11 goals last season, and even if he remains in England, a plan is already in place.

To help offset the potential loss of Kamara, Sporting signed 28-year-old forward Claudio Bieler as a Designated Player. He will add to an already strong forward line that includes C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury, who combined to score 14 goals last term alongside Kamara.

Bieler showed his proficiency in front of goal last season with LDU Quito of Ecuador, scoring 20 goals in 36 games, and Kansas City assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin feels his addition is certain to produce goals.

"Claudio's record speaks for itself with his goal-scoring abilities, which is one of his biggest strengths," Zavagnin said. "To add him to an already athletic, powerful, promising young group, it's a tremendous addition to that part of the field. No doubt, if he does what he's done over the course of his career, he will provide goals for us."

Providing the finishing touch is something that Bieler can add to a team that led the league in shots, but managed to score the second-fewest goals (42) among the 10 teams that qualified for the playoffs.

Midfielder Roger Espinoza also left for England to join Wigan, but outside of that, this a Kansas City team that added United States international Benny Feilhaber to the midfield, and made moves to add to an already stout back line.

The team not only returns captain and MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Jimmy Nielsen, but also possesses two of the better defenders in the league in Defender of the Year Matt Besler and MLS Best XI selection Aurelien Collin.

Add to that mix Josh Gardner, Ike Opara and Yann Songo'o, and Vermes has a nice collection of talent at his disposal in the back.

Returning to run things in the midfield is MLS MVP finalist Graham Zusi, who tallied five goals and led the league with 15 assists.

2012 IN REVIEW: It was a tale of two seasons for Sporting last year. The club finished five points clear at the top of the Eastern Conference and was the favorite to reach the MLS Cup. However, Sporting managed just one goal over its two-legged defeat against the Houston Dynamo, crashing out of the playoffs sooner than expected for the second straight year.

ACQUISITIONS: Josh Gardner (D), Benny Feilhaber (M), Ike Opara (D), Yann Songo'o (D), Claudio Bieler (F).

LOSSES: Julio Cesar (M), Michael Harrington (D), Korede Aiyegbuse (D), Luke Sassano (M), Roger Espinoza (M).

OUTLOOK: Despite the potential loss of Kamara, there is no reason why Sporting shouldn't finish atop the East again this season. The additions of Bieler and Feilhaber should help to offset Kamara's departure while the rest of a strong core remains intact. If young talents like Sapong and Bunbury continue to develop this is a side that is easily capable of the deep postseason run that has proved elusive for the past two years.

The Sports Network

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