KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Peter Vermes lets out a slow, deep breath when asked about the upcoming season, the manager of Sporting Kansas City forced once more to think about the daunting schedule.
At the top of the list is defending the club’s first MLS Cup championship since 2000, one that Sporting KC won in a dramatic shootout with Real Salt Lake last December. But there’s also the U.S. Open Cup, which it won a couple years ago, and the CONCACAF Champions League, where the club will begin quarterfinal play against Mexican heavyweight Cruz Azul in the coming weeks.
Oh, and that little thing called the World Cup. There’s a good chance several players from Sporting KC will be called upon for national team duty.
“We have a lot to play for,” Vermes said in an understatement.
If there’s any club up to the task, though, it just may be Sporting KC, which returns nearly all its key players from its championship team. In fact, the only real loss came with the retirement of goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who had also been Sporting KC’s captain.
Longtime backup Erik Kronberg will get the first shot at replacing him.
Otherwise, talented midfielder Graham Zusi and star defender Matt Besler, both members of the U.S. national team, will be back to lead the charge. So will flamboyant defender Aurelien Collin, goal-scorer Dom Dwyer and forwards C.J. Sapong, Soony Saad and Claudio Bieler.
Then there’s the newcomers, led by midfielders Sal Zizzo and Jimmy Medranda, both of whom Vermes is counting on to provide some much-needed scoring punch.
“We have so many guys back, we don’t really have to worry about chemistry,” Zusi said. “All we were doing in the preseason was getting match-fit. The chemistry was already there.”
Sporting KC opens its MLS schedule Saturday at Seattle, the start of a 15-day grind in which the club will play five times. Two of those games will come in the home-and-home Champions League match with Cruz Azul, the tournament’s five-time champion.
Never has an MLS team won the competition, which is used to select the CONCACAF representative for the FIFA Club World Cup in December in Morocco.
“We want it desperately,” said Robb Heineman, the CEO of Sporting Club. “To be the first to do it would be incredible, and I think we have the kind of team to do it.”
Vermes knew that Sporting KC would be diving right into the season, so he prepared for the opening grind with an even more grueling training camp. The club played matches every Wednesday and Saturday, mimicking what it would face in the regular season, and often played more intra-squad matches in an attempt to ramp up fitness as quickly as possible.
Dwyer even joked that the regular season would seem like a vacation.
“We’re definitely ready,” said Dwyer, who emerged as one of Sporting KC’s top young strikers during last year’s title run. “We worked hard. They killed us.”
Sporting KC played five games without a loss during training stints in Arizona and Florida last month, finally losing to Columbus in its final tuneup. Among those wins were impressive performances against MLS rivals Montreal and the New York Red Bulls.
“We had a very long preseason, played a lot of games, and we’ll see how it goes,” Collin said. “We can’t wait to be in the season.”
Vermes can’t wait for the season to start, either.
After winning the MLS Cup, he managed to two days off to relax and celebrate, and then hopped on a plane to England to begin scouting. That was the start of preparation for the new season, one that he knows will test his club’s depth and endurance like none before it.
“There’s going to be some ups and downs, and you can’t ever get to high or low. You have to stay in that equilibrium state,” Vermes said. “It’s about us staying focused and concentrated on what we need to do. A big part will be how we evolve as a team.”