By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jan 13, 2014) US Soccer Players – Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes is a man who doesn’t mince words. Ask him if he wants to win the CONCACAF Champions League after last month’s MLS Cup title, the former National Team midfielder said: “That is the plan.”
Sporting Kansas City represents the USA’s best chance of winning the continental prize this year – something no Major League Soccer club has ever done since the Los Angeles Galaxy won it in 2000. However, no MLS team has won the tournament since its 2008 revamping. Winning the title would also put an MLS team in the FIFA World Club Cup for the first time, the type of international exposure that would make league officials foam at the mouth.
As the 2013 MLS Cup win showed, Sporting Park is fast becoming one of the most treacherous places to play in North America. Vermes and his team hope they can take that confidence into the quarterfinals when they host Mexico’s Cruz Azul on March 12 in the opener of a tough home-and-away series.
“For a club to be really great, you need to be the best in your country every year and your continent,” said Sporting KC midfielder Oriol Rossell, a native of Spain who grew up in the Barcelona youth system. “Barcelona is great because they are one of the best teams in Europe, not just in Spain. We have the team and the players here to do that.”
With Vermes and his players thinking dynasty shortly after winning MLS Cup, the organization is serious about contending for as many titles as it can gobble up. In 2012, it won the US Open Cup. In 2014, players said they want the Supporters Shield, CONCACAF Champions League and even repeat as MLS Cup champions.
Vermes, again not shy about his ambition to dominate the North American soccer scene, said there is still plenty of room in the team’s trophy case.
“We are definitely a group that is hungry for more,” he said. “This is a great time for our organization, our city and the fans.”
Hungry or not, Vermes knows that optimism isn’t enough. Sporting KC faces challenges unique to MLS teams. The team won’t assemble for preseason camp for another two weeks and won’t play a competitive game until February 1 in Arizona. Rust can settle in during the winter months (as many other MLS teams have learned in the past), while Cruz Azul continues to play competitive matches throughout that same time period. With MLS success comes also National Team call-ups. US coach Jurgen Klinsmann called up five Sporting players – Chance Myers, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic and Benny Feilhaber – to January camp ahead of its friendly against South Korea. These players will get only six weeks with their Sporting KC teammates before taking on Cruz Azul.
Yes, Sporting KC does have the players to compete, but even its current roster will undergo major changes over the coming weeks. Although some players are gone like goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen who retired two days after lifting MLS Cup, there remains a core capable of putting together a strong showing.
Not everyone may be back. Myers has yet to renew his contract and a dual could emerge for starting goalkeeper after Vermes named backup Eric Kronberg the starter. At nearly the same time, he signed Columbus Crew’s Andy Gruenebaum, who had snatched the starting spot from Will Hesmer in Ohio just two years ago. Then there’s the looming MLS SuperDraft – a place Vermes has done very well in the past mining talent – that could further change the look of the team. Then there’s Toronto FC. With a conference competitor signing big names, things change for the East in 2014.
“There are two important competitions coming up with the MLS season and CONCACAF Champions Cup. (The coaching staff) is going to go out and enhance the club,” said Diego Gutierrez, a former Kansas City Wizards captain and current television analyst. “(The team) could look a little bit different, but the core of the team will be intact and that is something very confident for Sporting KC fans.”
What Sporting KC needs at the moment is depth. Two strong goalkeepers are better than one and multiple options in defense and in the midfield will only help down the stretch as the fixture calendar gets more crowded. The addition of USL Pro club Oklahoma City, coached by Nielsen, as a Kansas City affiliate will create a pipeline of players in time for the All-Star break. This will allow for Sporting KC’s younger players the chance to get time on the field, expanding the player pool and giving Vermes the options a team needs before the playoffs.
The changes may not help against Cruz Azul. New players will have to adapt quickly into Vermes’ system. Even the slightest mistake could cost the team. Indeed, the next few weeks should be interesting. What will happen is anyone’s guess. For Vermes, however, the process will need to result in wins. That’s what he needs to do if he wants to bring Sporting to the next level. After all, that is the plan.
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