The 2013 MLS champions lost seven of their final 10 regular-season matches and were dumped out of the playoffs by the New York Red Bulls in the play-in round.
TUCSON, Ariz. – Few duos in Major League Soccer define their clubs quite like Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi and Matt Besler.
Both soft-spoken and both late-blooming, the U.S. national-team members helped oversee Sporting’s transition from the Wizards to Sporting Park, from a league also-ran to one of its pillars.
So when both were announced as designated players on the same day – July 19 last year – it felt fitting.
Yet instead of setting the team down the path to further glories, Sporting faltered down the stretch. The defending champions lost seven of their final 10 regular-season matches and were dumped out of the playoffs by the New York Red Bulls in the play-in round.
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And as Kansas City shifts to the loaded Western Conference, its newly minted DPs are having to prove themselves anew.
“I absolutely feel a huge sense of pride from where this team and this club was to where it is now,” Zusi said Monday after practice at Kino Sports Complex. “I got to see both sides of it, and it makes me appreciate where we’re at now all the more. I do feel like I — not just me, but some other guys as well — helped get it to where it is. You can have a huge sense of pride in that.”
He and Besler both had other options, Zusi said, but he didn’t have to weigh them for long.
“Kansas City has been my best bet,” Zusi said. “So at the end of the day, it was a pretty easy decision for me.”
Sporting has turned itself into one of the league’s established powers. It finished first in the Eastern Conference in 2011 and 2012 and capped the second campaign with a U.S. Open Cup title. In 2013, Kansas City won the MLS Cup, overcoming Real Salt Lake 7-6 in a penalty shootout.
Last season, though, as both Zusi and Besler will tell you, was a disappointment. Besler, the team’s anchor of a central defender, admitted being worn down after the World Cup. Tune into a Sporting game during the final few months of last season, and the most common sight was Zusi charging forward out of the midfield with little help, trying to will his team back up the Eastern Conference standings.
“A lot of guys were pushing through, whether it was injury or fatigue,” Zusi said. “It caught up with us a little bit in the end.”
Despite the slumping finish, Kansas City didn’t change a whole lot this offseason. Sporting can be unabashedly gritty, and Seattle coach Sigi Schmid joked after the teams’ preseason match Saturday that he held out forward Obafemi Martins to save him from the little knocks and kicks.
“We feel like we have a definitive style of play,” Besler said. “We feel like we can make it tough on teams. That’s not going to change. Some of the personnel might change, but that’s why we’re out here working on our style so much.”
Kansas City is moving into the West this year alongside Houston to make room for expansion teams New York City FC and Orlando City. The shift means that seven of the top eight teams in the league for average attendance reside in the Western Conference, as do 11 of the past 12 MLS Cup finalists.
But the mood around Sporting this week in Tucson has been more excited than anything else, ready to tackle the new challenge even if it means a tougher schedule.
“We had a long rest and a long time to look at last year,” Zusi said. “We were not happy with the way it went. We’re going to right that ship and get back to our winning ways.”