2016 MLS season preview: Sporting Kansas City

After injuries ruined their MLS Cup hopes last season, Sporting KC are looking forward to a healthier 2016.

2015 regular season: 6th Western Conference (10th overall)

2015 playoffs: Knockout Round;7-6 loss to Portland Timbers on penalties after 2-2 draw

MLS Cup odds: 20/1

Players in: Lawrence Olum (free), Alec Kann (Re-Entry Draft), Justin Mapp (free agency), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo, trade), Daniel Salloi (Homegrown), Nuno Andre Coelho (free)

Players out: Jalil Anibaba (option declined), Mikey Lopez (out of contract), Krisztian Nemeth (Al-Gharafa SC, undisclosed), Erik Palmer-Brown (Porto, loan), Bernardo Anor (Minnesota United, loan), Amobi Okugo (waived), Marcel de Jong (mutual contract termination)

Despite moving into the stacked Western Conference in 2015, Sporting Kansas City remained confident that their solid core of veterans would keep them in the playoff conversation. They proceeded to endure plenty of hiccups along the way as the roster was besieged by injuries, but after winning the US Open Cup title in late September, Peter Vermes’ side went on to nab the final postseason spot with two wins in their last four games.

They ultimately fell at the first hurdle for a second straight year, losing on penalties at the Portland Timbers in the Knockout Round, but the 2013 MLS Cup winners will be hoping that a healthier roster and the additions of Justin Mapp and Brad Davis will lead to better things in 2016.

Reasons to be positive

The one major plus for Sporting KC is that they can’t possibly endure the same crippling injury problems they ran into last season. As well as seeing centre-back Ike Opara rupture his Achilles tendon after just six games, the club lost midfielder Roger Espinoza for the run-in to a broken foot, while several other players spent extended periods on the sidelines. The defence was rebuilt about three times over the course of the campaign as a result, leaving skipper Matt Besler as the only constant at the back. There was some good to come out of the crisis, as Homegrown defender Kevin Ellis emerged as a strong presence on the backline along with rookies Saad Abdul-Salaam and Amadou Dia, but Vermes will obviously be hoping that he doesn’t have to rely on his young backups quite so much in 2016.

Instead, SKC’s line-up should be filled with experience this year, especially in midfield, where new arrivals Mapp and Davis join the likes of Benny Feilhaber, Espinoza, Soni Mustivar and Graham Zusi to gives Vermes plenty of options to choose from. In addition, former Barcelona youngster Jordi Quintilla will be one to keep a close eye on after showing plenty of promise down the stretch following his August arrival.

Trouble on the horizon?

After taking MLS by storm in 2014, Dom Dwyer didn’t finish nearly as well as expected last season, seeing his production drop from 22 goals to 12. The fine form of Krisztian Nemeth meant the club didn’t suffer too much in the final third, but with the Hungarian international since leaving for Qatar, all the pressure is back on their English front man to produce the goods. There will likely be some cover arriving in the near future, but whether Vermes can find another 10-goal option like Nemeth remains to be seen. With a distinct lack of pace on the wings as well, there’s a real danger that they could be too one-dimensional going forward.

Key man: Benny Feilhaber

With a career-high 10 goals and 15 assists, Feilhaber was arguably the best American in MLS last season, earning his first All-Star selection and even a nomination for the MVP award. Jurgen Klinsmann may not think enough of his playmaking ability to hand the 41-times capped midfielder an international recall, but there’s little doubt that he’ll be the driving force behind Sporting KC’s title hopes in 2016.

One to watch: Daniel Salloi

SKC’s first Homegrown signing since 2013, Salloi netted 21 goals in 28 games for the club’s Under-18s between 2014 and 2015 before returning to his native Hungary to join Ujpest FC. Just six months later, though, he's back at Sporting Park and ready to show fans his promise. How much playing time the 19-year-old striker will see this season is currently unclear, but the lack of depth behind Dwyer suggests that there could well be opportunities for him to impress.

Predicted regular season finish: 5th Western Conference

Despite the concerns about their goalscoring potential, Sporting KC have a squad which is certainly deep and talented enough to compete with the top teams in the West. As long as the core of the side stays healthy, they should be able to extend their playoff streak to a sixth consecutive season.

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