Commentary

MLS 2012 preview: Kansas City

Updated: February 27, 2012, 6:51 AM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens | ESPN.com

2011 record and finish: 13-9-12 (first place in Eastern Conference)

Additions: D/M/F, Bobby Convey; M, Paulo Nagamura; M, Jacob Peterson; D, Dom Dwyer; D, Cyprian Hedrick; M, Michael Thomas

Losses: M, Davy Arnaud; M, Jeferson; M, Craig Rocastle; D, Shavar Thomas; F, Omar Bravo; M, Ryan Smith; D, Doneil Cyrus; D, Scott Lorenz; M, Milos Stojcev

Key questions facing this team:

1. Can Sporting find some consistency?

While it awaited the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park in 2011, Sporting started its season with 10 consecutive games on the road. Unsurprisingly, this brutal scheduling yielded a lone win from the team's first 11 league games. Sporting turned things around, though, losing only three more times the rest of the way, surging from worst to first and winning the conference's regular-season title. This season, it's unlikely that division rivals will flounder as spectacularly as they did last year, nor is there the excuse of a lopsided schedule. "I hope the consistency of a pretty even schedule of home-away-home-way will create a rhythm," head coach Peter Vermes said.

[+] EnlargeGraham Zusi
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesGraham Zusi leads a young, vibrant SKC team that should challenge for MLS Cup for years to come.

2. Where will Bobby Convey fit in?

Sporting acquired Convey, one of the most talented players in MLS, in exchange for a mere international roster slot after he fell out with San Jose Earthquakes head coach Frank Yallop. Convey's natural position is on the left side of midfield and he has played much of his career at left back, but Vermes envisions Convey as the left forward in his 4-3-3 system, where the departed Omar Bravo mostly operated last year. "That's a good place for him," Vermes said. "He's got a great left foot and his service is great."

3. Will the young core keep growing?

Sporting has assembled an enviable batch of talented young players who should form the backbone for the team in years to come. In addition to forwards C.J. Sapong (23), Teal Bunbury (21) and midfielder Graham Zusi (25), all three of whom were called into the U.S. national team's January camp, the side's core also includes defenders Matt Besler (24), Aurelien Collin (25) and Chance Myers (24). Forward Kei Kamara, meanwhile, is 27, while the experienced midfielders Paulo Nagamura and Convey are 28. This bunch is joined by some exciting prospects.

Biggest X factor: Late goals

In 2011, Sporting had an uncanny knack for both conceding and scoring late goals. Eleven of its 34 regular-season games were decided after the 80th minute. Sporting scored six times in the final ninth of regulation, securing a tie with each of those goals. But Kansas City conceded 13 times in the final 10 minutes, too, giving up four winners and an equalizer. This young team will need to figure out how to ride out games, consolidating leads into points and, conversely, learn how to decide games in its favor earlier in the match.

Breakout player to watch: C.J. Sapong

After Bravo left, it was assumed Sapong would become a full-time starter on the front line alongside Kamara and Bunbury. Given Vermes' inclination to start the season with Convey on the left, however, that leaves two starting jobs for the aforementioned three. The 4-3-3 requires a strong target man, however, a description that most fits Sapong. Don't be surprised to see him start the bulk of games at the expense of either Kamara or Bunbury and ratchet up his production from his five-goal and five-assist rookie of the year effort. You can also read more about Sapong here.

Outlook

Sporting Kansas City's off-field transformation from those meek Wizards to a model franchise with strong merchandise sales, fanatical support and the land's finest facility has translated onto the pitch as well. Sporting boasts an exciting young team that looks to be the terror of the Eastern Conference and could well improve on its 2011 Eastern Conference finals elimination. In fact, if it can more or less keep its squad together in the coming years, there's no reason Sporting couldn't consistently compete for the MLS Cup, a trophy it's won once, in 2000.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.