By all accounts, the 2011 MLS season was a huge success for Sporting Kansas City. Off the field, the franchise re branded from the Wizards name of old, into the Sporting organization that we all know today. The club also opened the brand new $200 million dollar LIVESTRONG Sporting Park.
On the field, Sporting equaled the success of the front office moves, finishing the regular season atop the Eastern Conference. Kansas City would defeat the defending MLS Cup Champion Colorado Rapids in a two leg series, before finally falling to the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final.
The success and accolades Sporting experienced in 2011 means that the the going will be a bit tougher if Kansas City hopes to repeat, or surpass the levels they reached a season ago.
One could make the case that Kansas City had the advantage of sneaking under the radar in 2011. Sporting won't have the luxury of being labeled the "underdogs" in 2012. Every team in Major League Soccer will be gunning for Kansas City now.
Last season, Sporting were also able to go largely unscathed in regards to injuries to key players. There were nicks here or there along the way, but the club never experienced a player of the caliber of say, Graham Zusi or Matt Besler being out for an extended amount of time due to injury. Will Sporting Kansas City have the same luck this season? The odds would probably suggest otherwise.
Also to be taken into account is the fact that a number of Sporting's top level players may miss significant time due to international play. Last season both Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone), Teal Bunbury (U.S.), and Roger Espinoza (Honduras) spent time with their respective national teams. This year you can add Zusi and CJ Sapong (both U.S.) to that list, which means that Sporting could be hurting if any number of these players are called up for national team duty, and have to miss time with Kansas City.
Of course, the biggest question in all of this is just how Sporting Kansas City will deal with the weight of expectations. Sporting are now viewed as one of the best teams in MLS, and a true title contender. There's a general sense among the fans in Kansas City that there's no reason the team shouldn't be able to reach the MLS Cup Final in 2012. The organization itself has said that anything less would be a disappointment.
Those expectations of an MLS Cup Final appearance, and just how the club reacts to playing the role of "Eastern Conference favorite", are what makes Sporting Kansas City's upcoming season one of the top stories in 2012.