When Sporting Kansas City lost to the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the MLS Eastern Conference Final on November 6th, two shortcomings of a Sporting team loaded with young talent became abundantly clear: the club was low on big game experience, and the team was hurting for quality depth in key positions.
Aside from midfielder Julio Cesar, who spent time playing with soccer giants Real Madrid early in his career, Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes fielded a Starting XI that hadn't collectively ever been on a stage as big as the Eastern Conference Final. With Vermes opting to go with Roger Espinoza over Davy Arnaud to play alongside Graham Zusi and Cesar in the midfield, and with a quad injury to forward Omar Bravo keeping him out of most of the match, Sporting Kansas City came out playing wide eyed, and nervous.
In that particular match, in front of a sold-out LIVESTRONG Sporting Park and with a chance to play in the MLS Cup Final on the line, Sporting played like a team almost totally unrecognizable to what fans had grown accustomed to over the second half of the 2011 MLS season. It appeared as if the moment was perhaps a little too big for Vermes' up-and-coming squad.
Fast forward to the MLS off-season, and it appears as though Vermes is intent on making sure a repeat of this year's playoff exit doesn't happen again. There were a number of things that went wrong in the 2-0 loss to Houston, one of them being the aforementioned lack of big game experience. Which is why the recent acquisitions of midfielders Paulo Nagamura from Chivas USA, and Bobby Convey from the San Jose Earthquakes should come as no surprise to the Sporting Kansas City collective.
Both Nagamura and Convey are seasoned veterans in Major League Soccer. Both players have made MLS All-Star appearances in the past (Nagamura was named to the All-Star team in 2009 with Chivas, Convey has been named to the All-Star squad each of the past two seasons for San Jose). Nagamura, who spent time in both the Sao Paulo FC and Arsenal FC youth programs early in his career, helped the LA Galaxy win the MLS Cup and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in his inaugural campaign in MLS in 2005. Convey has made 46 total appearance for the United States Men's National Team over his career, and was part of the U.S. team fielded in the 2006 World Cup.
There's no doubt Vermes wanted to add more experience to the squad, and with Nagamura and Convey, he's acquired two players that can lead, and perhaps even mentor Sporting's youthful and talented team.
After Sporting Kansas City traded a first round pick in this year's Supplemental Draft for Nagamura on November 28th, Vermes shared his thoughts on why he felt Paulo would fit in well in Kansas City. "Paulo Nagamura is a player within the league that we have watched and targeted for a few years. We are happy that the timing has worked out, where we could acquire him from Chivas USA. His experience and leadership will be a valuable addition to Sporting Kansas City."
After Kansas City made the trade for Convey only a few days later, Vermes once again brought up just how important the experience factor was in bringing Convey to Sporting. "Bobby Convey has been a difference-maker in this League for many years, with experience at the highest levels of soccer. His competitiveness and attacking qualities stand out and we feel that he can thrive within the culture created at Sporting Kansas City."
Aside from the experience and leadership that both players will provide Sporting, they will also bring another quality that will probably factor in huge for the 2012 season; versatility.
One of the other problems Sporting Kansas City faced in the Eastern Conference Final match, besides the lack of big game experience, was the loss of forward Omar Bravo. Perhaps more importantly though, a lack of true winger depth on Bravo's left flank was exploited. With Bravo suffering from a quad injury during the playoffs, Vermes was forced to play 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year CJ Sapong in Bravo's spot, an area where Sapong is much less effective than his usual center forward position.
With the addition of Convey, Sporting Kansas City have now added much needed depth at a number of positions on the left side of Kansas City's formation. Convey is a versatile player that should be able to fill in as needed, but also provide Vermes the opportunity to rest Bravo, one of Sporting's key players in their 2011 season. No such relief was available this past season. At least not relief in regards to a player that is completely comfortable playing that left winger role in Vermes' 4-3-3 system.
The same can be said for the addition of Nagamura, who should be able to play all three midfield positions, and spell Cesar and Zusi. It's a luxury the club didn't have down the playoff stretch, but it just might make the difference between an Eastern Conference Final appearance in 2011, and holding up the MLS Cup in 2012.