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Sporting Kansas City-Sounders Preview

The Associated Press

(AP) -- - While Sporting Kansas City didn't make many changes after claiming the MLS Cup, the Seattle Sounders felt it was time to do so after failing again to win it.

Sporting KC begins a busy year by opening its MLS title defense Saturday when it visits the new-look Sounders.

Peter Vermes lets out a slow, deep breath when asked about the upcoming season, the Kansas City coach forced once more to think about the daunting schedule.

At the top of the list is defending the club's first MLS Cup championship since 2000, one that Sporting KC won in a dramatic shootout with Real Salt Lake last December. But there's also the U.S. Open Cup, which it won a couple years ago, and the CONCACAF Champions League, where the club will begin quarterfinal play against Mexican heavyweight Cruz Azul in the coming weeks.

Oh, and that little thing called the World Cup. There's a good chance several players from Sporting KC will be called upon for national team duty.

"We have a lot to play for," Vermes said in an understatement.

If there's any club up to the task, though, it just may be Sporting KC (17-10-7), which returns nearly all its key players from its championship team. In fact, the only real loss came with the retirement of goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who had also been Sporting KC's captain.

Longtime backup Erik Kronberg will get the first shot at replacing him.

Otherwise, talented midfielder Graham Zusi and star defender Matt Besler, both members of the U.S. national team, will be back to lead the charge. So will flamboyant defender Aurelien Collin, goal-scorer Dom Dwyer and forwards C.J. Sapong, Soony Saad and Claudio Bieler.

Then there's the newcomers, led by midfielders Sal Zizzo and Jimmy Medranda, both of whom Vermes is counting on to provide some much-needed scoring punch.

"We have so many guys back, we don't really have to worry about chemistry," Zusi said. "All we were doing in the preseason was getting match-fit. The chemistry was already there."

Seattle (15-12-7) goes into 2014 with the same belief that anything less than an MLS title is not a success. But the Sounders will do it with a completely overhauled roster, the result of their slide at the end of 2013. They won once in their final 10 games, including a first-round playoff loss to Portland.

General manager Adrian Hanauer and majority owner Joe Roth decided keeping coach Sigi Schmid and remodeling the team was the path Seattle would travel.

It wasn't a complete overhaul. Midfielder Brad Evans is still around. So is Lamar Neagle, Obafemi Martins and rising homegrown star DeAndre Yedlin. Midfielder Osvaldo Alsonso was rewarded with a designated player contract and Seattle is about to get its first full season with Clint Dempsey on the roster.

But the names that are gone are notable. U.S. national team striker Eddie Johnson is now with D.C. United. Defensive center backs Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni are gone. Midfielder Mauro Rosales is now with Chivas USA. Goalkeeper Michael Gspurning is back in Europe.

"It's not really up to me what changes we make on the roster but the new guys have been great and very positive," Yedlin said. "They are good players and I'm excited to see what they can bring to the team."

The additions made by Seattle aren't on the same level as the move last summer to bring Dempsey back from Europe. But they could end up being more important.

Up front, Seattle brought in veteran striker Kenny Cooper, along with Chad Barrett and Tristan Bowen. In the midfield, Seattle acquired Marco Pappa through allocation when he decided to return to MLS from Europe. Chad Marshall, who played for Schmid in Columbus, was acquired in a trade to anchor the middle of Seattle's defense. And former Toronto goalkeeper Stefan Frei was brought in to compete with 41-year-old Marcus Hahnemann for the starting job.

"It is pretty obvious the mentality they are going for," Neagle said. "They want to be more aggressive and a lot more pressure and I think the guys they've brought in have that same mentality, so it's nice. It's easy to get on the same page when you have similar guys on the field."

While all the roster changes mean some sort of acclimation period, how Dempsey fits during his second season will be watched closely early in the year. His first few months with Seattle late last season were a disappointment as the American star recorded just one goal and one assist in his nine games. Getting fully entrenched as Seattle's leader will be difficult this season as well with Dempsey likely getting called away for U.S. national team duties even before training camp for the World Cup in Brazil starts in May.

"We're still getting to know each other. We're still getting to know what the tendencies are of each player, but I like the spirit of the team, I like their attitude," Schmid said.

Vermes, meanwhile, knew that Sporting KC would be diving right into the season, so he prepared for the opening grind with an even more grueling training camp. The club played matches every Wednesday and Saturday, mimicking what it would face in the regular season, and often played more intrasquad matches in an attempt to ramp up fitness as quickly as possible.

Dwyer even joked that the regular season would seem like a vacation.

"We're definitely ready," said Dwyer, who emerged as one of Sporting KC's top young strikers during last year's title run. "We worked hard. They killed us."

Sporting KC played five games without a loss during training stints in Arizona and Florida last month, finally losing to Columbus in its final tuneup. Among those wins were impressive performances against MLS rivals Montreal and the New York Red Bulls.

"We had a very long preseason, played a lot of games, and we'll see how it goes," Collin said. "We can't wait to be in the season."

Seattle is 6-0-1 against Kansas City in MLS play since losing the initial meeting in 2009.

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