'12 Season Preview: Sporting tries to avoid a step back

Major League Soccer's franchise in Kansas City received a major facelift prior to the 2011 season, and it paid dividends both on and off the pitch.

Formerly known as the Kansas City Wizards, the club was totally rebranded with a change to its name, logo, and venue, and Sporting Kansas City was born.

The club's new soccer-specific stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park, became one of the most dreaded arenas for teams to visit as Sporting lost just twice on its home field.

Sporting's home form gave way to a resurgent run in the second half of the season that saw the club finish atop the Eastern Conference with 51 points.

A successful team in a first-class stadium led to multiple sellouts at Livestrong Sporting Park, indicating that Sporting Kansas City looks a solid investment for long-term viability in the league.

The biggest question hanging over Sporting Kansas City for the 2012 season is whether or not it can continue to achieve the same level of success that it did last year.

It would be easy to say no. Sporting's first-place finish and Eastern Conference Finals appearance (which it lost to the Houston Dynamo) last season set the bar so high that anything short of an appearance in MLS Cup could be viewed as a failure.

But if there is reason for optimism, it revolves around Sporting's stable of young talent.

Sporting's impressive attacking line consisting of C.J. Sapong, Teal Bunbury, and Kei Kamara boasts an average age just under 24, but the three strikers combined for 23 of the team's 50 regular season goals last year.

Youth is also a common theme in the back line as defenders Aurelien Collin (25) and Chance Myers (24) made major contributions throughout the year, while Matt Besler (24) was voted into the 2011 MLS All-Star Game for his efforts in the first half of the season.

But the pick of the lot may be Graham Zusi, who at 25 could be poised for a big year in the center of Sporting midfield. Zusi netted five goals and added seven assists last season and was rewarded with a new contract in February. He will occupy a crucial position in Sporting's formation by serving as the link between midfielders and forwards.

Another key to Sporting's season will hinge on how the team performs in the dying minutes of each match. Eleven of the team's 34 regular season games last year were decided in the last 10 minutes. Sporting conceded 13 times in the closing 10 minutes, giving up four game-winners and one equalizer. If that trend was to continue in 2012, it may cause a slight regression for Peter Vermes and his squad.

2011 IN REVIEW: Sporting started slow, claiming just one win from its first 11 games. But once Livestrong Sporting Park opened on June 9, the club went on a tear to finish the regular season as Eastern Conference champions. After dispatching of the Colorado Rapids in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Sporting crashed out of the postseason with a disappointing loss to the Houston Dynamo at home.

ACQUISITIONS: Bobby Convey (D/M), Dom Dwyer (D), Cyprian Hedrick (D), Paulo Nagamura (M), Jacob Peterson (M), Michael Thomas (M).

LOSSES: Davy Arnaud (M), Omar Bravo (F), Doneil Cyrus (D), Jeferson (M), Scott Lorenz (D), Craig Rocastle (M), Ryan Smith (M), Milos Stojcev (M), Shavar Thomas (D).

OUTLOOK: The pieces are certainly in place for Sporting to make a strong run at MLS Cup in 2012. The young players have gained valuable experience in a postseason run, and departing players like Davy Arnaud and Omar Bravo were replaced with Bobby Convey and Paulo Nagamura. But Sporting may be a victim of its own success as it is carrying a target following last season's achievements.