Over the weekend, Sporting Kansas City came dribbling into Tucson with a new title — MLS champions.
Just 50 days after becoming the top dog of U.S. professional soccer by winning the 2013 MLS Cup on penalties over Real Salt Lake, Sporting KC was back out on the pitch with the prospects of a title defense and a new frontier to hurdle on the horizon.
Sporting KC, the first of 10 MLS clubs training in Tucson over the next five weeks, is beginning to know the area like the palm of its hand, with the lifeline going straight through the Kino Sports Complex north fields. This is the two-time champ’s fourth consecutive year of preseason training in the Old Pueblo.
“I’m always impressed every year when I come back here because the improvements that happen at the complex are tremendous,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said following Sunday morning’s workout. “It’s pleasing to us because it’s the same thing we try to do with our team, right. We try to improve it every year. And the improvements that are going on with the facility are right in line with our philosophy as an organization.
“Everything we’re trying to do is always be consistent, Vermes added. “Obviously, you don’t want to be consistently bad, you want to be consistently good. And how you get that is by, first off, having a high standard, but more importantly setting high expectations.
“When we come to a place like this it always provides us with the opportunity to start off the year in the right frame of mind. We stay at a great hotel site. The training facilities are great. Then, it’s not hard for us to come out here and demand from our players that, when they step inside the white lines, they train at a very high level and it’s very intense.”
Sporting KC will need that intensity from the get-go this season. The club opens the regular season in Seattle on March 8, which will start a run of six matches in 22 days. That gauntlet includes home and away matches against perennial Mexican power Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
“We know we are up against a formidable opponent in Cruz Azul. The difficult part about it for us is that they’re in the mid-part of their season and we’re just starting,” Vermes said. “So we need to accelerate our preseason a little bit to get ourselves prepared to be in form when we play those two games early in the season.”
At least one of Vermes’ charges is certainly up for those two matches.
“For the team, for the city, for me personally, it’s something very, very important,” said center back Aurelien Collin, who converted the penalty that put SKC ahead for good en route to winning MVP of last year’s MLS Cup.
The Frenchman, a two-time MLS All-Star now in his fourth season with Sporting KC, clearly enjoyed the 70 degrees and sun that the team bathed in Sunday at Kino. He wore a sleeveless top, rather than the practice T-shirt most of his teammates donned, and had his shorts rolled up.
“You know me, I only have blood to live in the hot weather,” Collin said. “I’m very happy to be here.”
He and his teammates will be training in Tucson for a couple weeks. They will face FC Tucson in a closed-to-the-public scrimmage Tuesday and then will open the public MLS preseason matches with a 6 p.m. game against the Portland Timbers on Saturday at Kino Sports Complex North Stadium.