MLS 2011 Preview: Sporting Kanas City Has Sights Set On Playoffs

Who do you expect to be starting at First Kick?

Leading into the preseason, many people thought they had a good idea as to who would make up about half of the starting XI on opening night against Chivas USA. The one thing that people couldn't seem to agree on, though, was who would start at forward, because that was an area that was believed to have a lot of depth and players vying for playing time. A month later, it still remains a talking point, but now, it’s because of the injury situation at the forward spot.

Teal Bunbury suffered a dislocated elbow on Feb. 15 and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks, so that puts First Kick in some doubt for the newly initiated United States national teamer. He has said recently he expects to be available for the season opener, but unless he’s 100 percent and there is no risk of re-injuring that elbow, it would be slightly silly to rush him back; especially with such a marathon season this year. Fellow forward Ryan Smith, who came to the team last year and quickly dazzled the league with his creative dribbling ability and old Arsenal playing style. As someone who gave the defenders of MLS fits last year, Smith was often subjected to brash tackles, so injuries obviously mounted, given his slender frame. It was unexpected coming into preseason that he was injured and would still be unable to participate in his first practice, even now, so he is in serious doubt for the opener.

Based upon recent lineups used by Sporting KC technical director/head coach Peter Vermes, I would expect that Kei Kamara will man the right flank in Vermes’ 4-3-3 formation, with newly signed designated player Omar Bravo on the left, and goal-scoring binger Birahim Diop in the middle.

Up until the trade of Jack Jewsbury to Portland Timbers on March 1, I did believe there would be a bit of competition for a starting spot in the midfield. Davy Arnaud will be team captain for the second straight year, so he’s pretty much locked into the starting lineup; especially as a tough-nosed "Vermes kind of guy." Where there was a potential question were the other two spots. Incumbent holding midfielder Stephane Auvray had a fairly successful first season in MLS in 2010, when healthy. It was always likely that he would start the season in that same spot, but after Jewsbury looked to be having a strong preseason, it was a slight possibility. Craig Rocastle was a late-season revelation in 2010, going from thug-minded destroyer with a reputation of yellow and red cards, to decisive, composed and a threat in attack and a force in defense. With Jewsbury gone, March 19 will likely see that same starting trio as much of the second half of 2010.

The SKC backline is about as Jekyll and Hyde as any unit you’re bound to find in MLS. The fullbacks, Michael Harrington and Roger Espinoza, will man the right and left sides of defense, respectively, as well as any rightback-leftback tandem in the league. Their play in 2010 was beyond superb, so they are seriously locked into starting roles and will be counted upon to not only replicate a successful 2010, but improve upon it once again, as they are just 24 and 25 years old, respectively. That’s the Jekyll. The Hyde is the absolute gaping hole in the center of defense. You could ask five different fans their center back pairing for opening night, and very likely get five different answers. The candidates: Shavar Thomas, Matt Besler, Brazilian trialist Julio Cesar Santos, Gambian trilaist Omar Colley and rookie draft pick Mike Jones. It could any combination of those five players, with Jones being a extremely unlikely. Of the group, Besler could potentially have the highest upside, but consistency and occasional toughness have been a nagging issue for him. That said, he should get a chance to make claim to a starting spot before anyone else. We’ll go with Thomas and Besler to start opening night; at least for this exercise.

Manning the area between the sticks will once again be Jimmy "The White Puma" Nielsen. Nielsen’s first season in MLS was marginally successful, and when he was re-signed during the offseason, it was a foregone conclusion he would be the starter in 2011.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

When you splash the cash for a designated player in MLS, you had better get a lot of bang for your buck. SKC agreed to a DP contract with Mexican international forward Omar Bravo last summer, but allowed him to stay with his now former club Chivas Guadalajara for the rest of 2010 on loan.

Having just turned 31 in the last week, Bravo still looks to have quite a bit left in the tank, seeing how his game is predicated around speed, which is something you lose as you get older. Bravo has long been known as a creative "genius" (as told by some) who sees and attempts things that most players would never even dream of. It is that creative spirit that Kansas City so dearly lacked in 2010, so Bravo will be heavily relied upon to provide that from day one of his MLS career. Already this preseason he has played all three of the forward spots in the 4-3-3, and spent a bit of time at the attacking midfielder spot, as well. Expect to see much more of that variety from the new Mexican star.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

Even to outsiders, it’s fairly obvious that the loss of defender Jimmy Conrad during the offseason leaves a huge hole in the center of defense (already discussed). Agree with not re-signing the 8-year veteran or not, (and I happen to agree) losing the luxury of week in and week out being able to pencil in one half of your central defense without even a thought is bound to hurt a bit. If Matt Besler can step up and make a regular starting spot his own, that will go a long way to filling the void.

At what point is this season considered success?

It’s "Playoffs or Bust" for KC in 2011. Quite simply, this is Vermes’ second full year as head coach with the team, and fifth as technical director. After he fired Curt Onalfo and appointed himself head coach in August 2009, he put himself on the clock. The team was vastly overhauled between his interim spell to finish 2009 and his first full year in 2010. He signed almost half of a new roster, brought in his players that he wanted to coach to play the way he wanted to play, and had varying degrees of success doing so.

If SKC fails to reach the playoffs in 2011, especially with the newly formatted and expanded playoff structure, the year won’t be considered not a success, but a failure. By the end of the season, once some new players have had upwards of 30 games with their new teammates, this team should begin to click and there is no reason they can’t make a lengthy run in the MLS Cup playoffs. Don’t call your bookie and bet them to win the Cup, but also don’t be surprised if they’re still playing in the middle of November.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

The team really is "all in" on Bravo. We saw what the team was capable of in 2010 without him, and it was rather uninspiring. That would obviously be the reason the front office made a big push to sign a DP in the offseason, and the right one, as well. Fair or not, Bravo will either be rejoiced or made the goat in six months’ time.

Can they survive an epic 10-game road trip to start the season?

If we are being objective here, it’s going to be a real test. It’s not just ten games on the road; it’s a New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Colorado four-game stretch from late-April through the month of May.

That said, Jack Jewsbury might have said it best at the beginning of the preseason: "the way we look at it is: we have 34 games and there's 17 on the road, no matter how you break them up." Avoiding too many injuries will obviously be a very big key, as well as getting off to a good start against a somewhat weaker first handful of games against Chivas, Chicago, Vancouver, Columbus and New England.

How will the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup affect Sporting KC?

The 2011 version of the bi-annual competition will hit Kansas City the hardest of all MLS teams; at least as far as key players and starters go. That’s just the price you pay for having a largely international mix of players, as KC does.

Stephane Auvray (Guadeloupe), Craig Rocastle (Grenada), Shavar Thomas (Jamaica) and Roger Espinoza (Honduras) all helped their respective international teams qualify for the tournament last summer, while Teal Bunbury (USA) will surely be in the mix for the American roster, as well. That’s five plays that, when healthy, will be counted on for significant contributions as starters. Obviously, depth will be a big key in surviving up to a month without each player.

Recently signed trialist Scott Lorenz will back up Espinoza at leftback, the carousel of forwards should survive without Bunbury for a period of time, Santos or Colley could potentially step in for Thomas for a bit, but depth in the midfield is seriously lacking at the moment. Meaning, a long run by Guadeloupe and/or Grenada in the competition could cause serious problems for the players’ club team.

- Report by Andy Edwards of The Daily Wiz (Sporting Kansas City blog)

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