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Sporting K.C. opens season today

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Last season was a success for Sporting Kansas City by almost any measure.

The MLS club won the U.S. Open Cup, its first trophy of any kind since 2004. It won the regular-season Eastern Conference title for the second straight year. It was so successful two of its top players were sought by clubs in the English Premier League.

All of which made the way things ended sting all the more.

With the second-best record in the league, Sporting KC carried a No. 1 seed into its matchup with Houston in the MLS Cup playoffs. After a 2-0 loss in the first leg of the two-game aggregate-goal series, though, a 1-0 victory in the return wasn’t enough to stave off elimination.

“We all remember the Houston games in the playoffs. It’s not how we wanted to end the season,” said defender Matt Besler. “But all of us, we took a step back from it, and we realized we’re starting a new season. It’s time for us to get in position to go after it again.”

That quest begins today when Sporting KC opens its season at Philadelphia.

The roster the club will be fielding, at least early on, has some noticeable changes from the group of young and hungry players who achieved such success last season.

Midfielder Roger Espinoza is gone on a transfer to Premier League club Wigan Athletic, and leading goal-scorer Kei Kamara is on loan to Norwich until May, at which point that Premier League club can decide whether to make the move permanent.

That’s not exactly the way to start off retooling a team that struggled to score last season.

But manager Peter Vermes is confident the moves Sporting KC made during the offseason will be enough to help absorb the loss of two key players. And besides, it’s not as though he can hold a grudge against a couple of players who are attempting to fulfill their goals.

“Kei is a perfect example,” Vermes said. “I know he loves playing here, and at the same time, he has ambitions to play in the EPL. ... I’d love to have him for the start of the season, but I think it gives him a chance to see what his dream is like in reality.

“As we have success, our players are going to be sought. We have to be prepared for that, and I think we’ve made some good additions.”

Vermes traded with New England for U.S. international Benny Feilhaber, helping to fill the void left by Espinoza in the midfield. He also acquired Argentine striker Claudio Bieler as one of the club’s designated players, giving Sporting KC a dangerous goal-scorer to help fill in for the production Kamara took with him across the Atlantic Ocean.

Bieler, who turned 29 on Friday, has generated a particular buzz in Kansas City. He spent last season with LDU Quito in Ecuador’s top league, scoring 20 goals in just 36 games.

“Claudio adds another attacking person to our team,” Vermes said. “I think Ike Opara was a great pick up for us, adding depth to the central part of the defense. He has a huge ceiling. And Josh Gardner is another guy who should be able to help us defensively on the left side.”

Opara arrived in a trade with San Jose, while Gardner came over from Montreal.

Defense hasn’t been much of a problem for Sporting KC, though. The club allowed just 27 goals last season, by far the best in the league. Jimmy Nielsen was the MLS goalkeeper of the year, Besler was defender of the year and fellow defender Aurelien Collin was a Best XI selection.

“I’m a firm believer that the defense is your most important part, and it’s not just the defender and Jimmy. It’s the whole team,” Besler said. “The last couple years we’ve really done a great job of defending as a team. I certainly see that as the case this year.”

Sporting KC’s spruced up depth should help it navigate a brutal grind that includes not only its pursuit of the MLS Cup title — something it hasn’t won since 2000 — but also the defense of the U.S. Open Cup and its new inclusion in the CONCACAF Champions League.

And make no mistake: The club wants to be competitive in all three competitions.

“It’s quite the schedule we have, but I think you’ll really see our depth shine through this year,” said midfielder Graham Zusi, who led the league with 15 assists last season.

“I think you’ll see guys who were not necessarily getting a lot of minutes in regular games come through,” Zusi said, “and really show their ability.”

Still, the one trophy that stands above the rest is the MLS Cup, and Zusi said that loss to Houston to end last season still stings. He said Sporting KC wasn’t necessarily in search of additional motivation this offseason, but ruing that upset loss provided it anyway.

“We set a goal at the beginning of the season, and twice we’ve fallen short,” he said. “We’re taking each of those times as learning experiences. I think if we’re put in that situation again, we’re thinking that you’ll see a different outcome this time.”

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