Sporting KC hits stride as league play starts

Evansville signee Nate Opperman and Sporting Kansas City aim to win a division title in 2012. Brian Davidson

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The up-and-down season of Sporting Kansas City's under-17/18 team is on the upswing following its 2-1 U.S. Soccer Development Academy triumph over St. Louis Scott Gallagher Metro in its Frontier Division Central Conference opener March 10.

Goals by forwards Isai Gutierrez and Eduardo Moreno in the 19th and 32nd minutes hoisted Sporting Kansas City from a 1-0 deficit as the team improved to 5-3 overall. Next up is a meeting with St. Louis Scott Gallagher Missouri (0-0, 3-2-2).

Sporting Kansas City has been just fine, when it hasn't had to mess with Texas.

The team’s losses are to Texas clubs Lonestar, Dallas Texans and FC Dallas at a point when those squads were far into their season and Kansas City was just getting started.

"Every season, we go and we play teams from Texas who are in the middle of their season or a third of the way through their season. They have the fitness, and we're coming in from high school and we have very limited time to go to work with the boys before we go and play their top teams," Sporting Kansas City coach Paul Rideout said.

"All three teams do the right stuff, but I would have liked to play those teams halfway through our season, where I feel that we could be more on a level playing field, because I feel that the squad that we have this year, we could be very competitive with all of those teams. The losses we had to Lonestar and Dallas Texans could have gone either way."

The setbacks notwithstanding, Sporting Kansas City appears to have righted itself behind strikers Moreno (four goals), Shane Woods (two) and one goal each from Gutierrez, forwards Nate Opperman and Garrett Pulliam and defenders Eric DeJulio, Daniel Hare and Clay Stewart.

The play of DeJulio, Hare, Steward and Matt Peterson has also been critical in front of goalie Jacole Turner.

"It brought the boys down to earth and made the boys understand that if you're not prepared right, fit enough and sharp enough, that you can easily get turned over," Rideout said. "Especially in our conference, any team can be beaten on any given day."

Among Kansas City's premier players are Opperman and defensive midfielder Armando Hipolito.

"Armando is one of those who, if you give him the ball, under any kind of pressure, it doesn't bother him. This is a kid who reads the script and knows what's going on before it happens," Rideout said. "He's about 5-foot-9 with a stocky build and he knows how to use his body and doesn't give the ball away, but at the same time, he's a player that makes things happen. He wants to be a pro soccer player, and he has all of the tools, and that's the kind of player you want to see come through."

Opperman was the recipient of the 2011 Bob Gansler Award, bestowed upon the most outstanding Sporting Kansas City player.

"We've all got good heads on our bodies, and we just all have come together after the losses and worked hard in the following weeks and we're ready to go at it again this weekend," said Opperman, who is bound for the University of Evansville.

"Obviously, last weekend was our first conference game, and those are the big games for us. We're really trying to win out in our conference this year. We go down this weekend to play the Missouri side. We took a lot from our last win, and obviously, our goal is to stay in the lead in the conference."