After rough start, Sporting has the look of a Cup contender
By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The 2011 Major League Soccer season always promised to be a season unlike any other for Sporting Kansas City.
The club formerly known as the Kansas City Wizards got a new name, a new look and was set to move into a new soccer-specific stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park.
After failing to reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, change would appear to be good, but it also came at a cost.
In order to move from CommunityAmerica Ballpark, which is a minor league baseball stadium and probably the worst venue in the league, into its sparkling new $200 million home, Sporting had to open the season on the longest road trip in MLS history.
Livestrong Sporting Park wasn't scheduled to open until early June, meaning that the first 10 games for coach Peter Vermes and his team would come on the road.
Predictably, the road trip didn't yield many points for Sporting, which went 1-6-3 to start the season and left the club dwelling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
But having survived the grueling start to the season, Sporting enters the All- Star break on a 12-game unbeaten streak and just five points from the top of the Eastern Conference table.
So beside the fact that Sporting now gets to play in front of its home crowd and the players get to sleep a few nights in their own bed, what's changed?
Mexico international Omar Bravo leads the team with six goals.
"I think it's just confidence," said All-Star defender Matt Besler. "During the 10-game stretch that we had on the road, we thought we were playing well but things just weren't going our way, so it's tough when you don't get results, to keep your head up and to say, 'Keep going, it's going to be okay.' For some reason, right now things are clicking and we're very confident."
Beyond just confidence, the team has also put together one of the most balanced attacks in MLS led by a group of forwards that seems to be coming together at the right time.
Mexico international Omar Bravo leads the team with six goals after shaking off some early injury issues, while Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and rookie C.J. Sapong have given Vermes plenty of selection decisions to make.
Sapong, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, has been a revelation this season, helping to ease the loss of Bravo early in the campaign and continuing to find playing time despite the depth that K.C. boasts at the position.
"At the end of the day, the guy that will get games is the guy who's playing well, and C.J. continues to be that guy," Vermes said. "No matter who the forward is, he has to be able to hold it up and help us gain real estate. C.J. is almost like a slinky. He can easily get around people and does it effortlessly."
In fact, Sapong is the only player on the Sporting roster to appear in all 20 league games so far this season, but he is not the only one enjoying a strong start.
Besler will be making his first appearance at an All-Star game as the anchor of the Sporting defense, while midfielder Graham Zusi has been vital in his role as a playmaker in midfield, scoring three goals and assisting on four more.
After yielding 12 goals in its opening five games, the K.C. defense has tightened up as well, conceding only eight times in the last 11 matches.
Things are certainly looking up for Sporting, which will not only be attempting to extend its unbeaten streak after the All-Star break, but will be trying continue its strong play at home.
The team is unbeaten in six games on home soil this season, and they will be seeing a lot more of their new digs in the second half, with 11 of their final 14 games coming at home.
The Eastern Conference race is wide open, and with such a favorable schedule the rest of the way Sporting is in position to make a run at the top spot in the East and a favorable seed in the MLS Cup playoffs.
After overcoming such a tough start to the season, a deep postseason run is not out of the question.