Season Preview: Sporting Kansas City / by Andrew Olsen

Sporting Kansas City has been a lot of things in its 18-year existence. It’s been good and bad, in the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference, and it’s been the Wizards and the “Wiz.” However a transformation occurred more recently that began with the hiring of coach and former player, Peter Vermes, and then the ensuing rebranding of the club. Below you can see the significant boost in attendance that came with a new name and a new park in 2011:

Season Regular Playoffs
2007 11,586 12,442
2008 10,686 10,385
2009 10,053 DNQ
2010 10,287 DNQ
2011 17,810 19,702
2012 19,364 20,894
2013 19,709 20,777

This change culminated in a rapidly expanding fan base that is just as fervent and rabid as any in MLS, anchored by The Cauldron. The club has seen a lot of success in the past two seasons with a US Open Cup win in 2012 and last season’s MLS Cup win at Sporting Park. Things are looking up for Sporting, and this year should yield more of that same success for the defending MLS Cup Champions.

2013 Starting XI

Sporting KC's best XI in 2013

Roster churn: Sporting KC returns 87.7% of its minutes played in 2013 (1st in the East, 2nd in MLS)

Transactions

 Player Added Position From Player Lost Position To
Sal Zizzo M POR Jimmy Nielsen GK Retirement
Andy Gruenebaum GK CLB Kyle Miller D Waived
Brendan Ruiz D Waived

2014 Preview

Median age: 25.5 *Designated player

SKCINFOMajor League Soccer has seen teams rise and fall from season to season as quickly as in any other sport.  A year ago at this time, most of us thought that the San Jose Earthquakes were a favorite in the West, coming off a 72-goal, 66-point performance in 2012’s regular season. We also probably thought the Portland Timbers would be lucky to slip into the Wildcard play-in game. Previous point totals and playoff results, obviously, must be taken with a grain of salt.

While winning the MLS Cup was likely one of the most important moments in many of Sporting players’ lives, it’s not nearly as important as shot data for predicting future success---and SKC limited scoring opportunities better than anyone in the league. Sporting also came in second to the Galaxy in the run for the coveted Golden TI-89 Trophy—given for best expected goal differential in MLS last season—and it returns players that made up 87.7 percent of the team’s total minutes played last season, good for second in MLS behind Real Salt Lake’s 90.5 percent.

It should be no surprise that teams which finish a season well do little to rock the boat for the coming season. But expected goal differential suggests that Sporting is justified in keeping its unit together (+18.3 xGD), while RSL’s success with its current squadron may not be as sustainable (-4.1 xGD).

While Sporting is losing 12.3 percent of its 2013 playing time, the loss of Jimmy Nielsen to retirement makes up most of that (9.1 percent of the team's total minutes). Considering that our goalkeeper ratings here on the site, as well as those by our own Will Reno, didn’t like Nielsen much in 2013, this could actually make Sporting better in 2014. That's scary.

Andy Gruenebaum probably ought to be the opening day starter between the posts, but if Vermes goes with Eric Kronberg, we can suppose it’s because he’s good, and we can suppose that both keepers are better than Nielsen.

Whether Vermes goes with Gruenebaum or Kronberg, we all know it's that SKC defense that makes the biggest difference. Led by USMNT centerback Matt Besler, Sporting allowed the fewest goals in MLS (30), and more importantly for their 2014 projections, the fewest shots (8.9/game) and the lowest expected goals against (29.8).

Before we leave the defensive part of the pitch, I would be remiss if I did not mention Besler's secret weapon. Despite getting paid mostly to stop others from scoring, Besler can become an offensive weapon with his throw in. Across MLS, about 100 shots were taken directly following throw ins, and 14 of those were scored. Sporting represented about one-quarter of the entire league's offensive production from the throw in, thanks in large part to Besler's triceps.

Though Sporting's defense was best in the league, there is room to grow offensively. SKC ranked 5th in MLS in expected goals, but 11th in actual goals. A narrative worth following this season is the relationship between Vermes and his designated player Claudio Bieler. The Argentine/Ecuadorian striker led Sporting with 10 goals in 2013, but he scored only one of those after July 13th. Bieler found himself out of the lineup often as Sporting was making its push for the Supporters' Shield (for which it finished 2nd behind New York). Vermes justified one such benching simply by saying that it was a "tactical decision." Bieler may be Sporting's best goal scorer, but first he has to make the coach happy and actually play. Our Expected Goals 2.0 suggests that Bieler scored 30 percent more goals than an average player would have, given his opportunities. That was good for 16th in MLS among those with at least 50 shots. Kansas City fans could see more goals from its team in 2014 if Bieler can rack up at least 30 starts and maintain last year's finishing pace.

Another key cog in the offensive machine is Graham Zusi. Though he's known mostly as a facilitator for others' shots, Zusi's six goals in 2013 were a bonus over the 3.7 an average player would be expected to score, given his shot selection. Though the merits of the assists statistic are up for debate, what is not is that Zusi is immensely valuable to Sporting's possession-based style of play that generates the most efficient shot ratios in the league. And his hair, oh his hair.

While winning the MLS Cup last year is not, by itself, a great predictor of 2014 success for Sporting Kansas City, adding in the fact that their championship was backed by strong predictive statistics means a lot more, and we are likely to see another championship run from Sporting this season. Sporting has few questions to answer, and kicks off 2014 as the favorite in the East. If Bieler settles in for a full season, well, we could see back-to-back MLS Cups in The Blue Hell.

Crowd Sourcing Results

1st place in the Eastern Conference; Sporting Kansas City received 226 of 404 (55.9%) first place votes, and 93.6% of voters felt that Sporting would make the playoffs.