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Sporting Kansas City-Union Preview

AP - Sports

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) -- - Last season was a success for Sporting Kansas City by almost any measure.

The club won the U.S. Open Cup, its first trophy of any kind since 2004. It won the regular-season Eastern Conference title for the second straight year. It was so successful that two of its top players were sought by clubs in the English Premier League.

All of which made the way things ended sting all the more.

With the second-best record in the league at 18-7-9, Sporting KC carried a No. 1 seed into its matchup with Houston in the MLS Cup playoffs. After a 2-0 loss in the first leg of the two-game aggregate-goal series, though, a 1-0 victory in the return wasn't enough to stave off elimination.

"We all remember the Houston games in the playoffs. It's not how we wanted to end the season," defender Matt Besler said. "But all of us, we took a step back from it, and we realized we're starting a new season. It's time for us to get in position to go after it again."

That quest begins Saturday when Sporting KC opens its season at Philadelphia.

The roster that the club will be fielding, at least early on, has some noticeable changes.

Midfielder Roger Espinoza is gone on a transfer to Premier League club Wigan Athletic, and leading goal scorer Kei Kamara is on loan to Norwich until May, at which point that Premier League club can decide whether to make the move permanent.

That's not exactly the way to start off retooling a team that struggled to score last season.

But manager Peter Vermes is confident that the moves Sporting KC made during the offseason will be enough to help absorb the loss of two key players.

"As we have success, our players are going to be sought," Vermes said. "We have to be prepared for that, and I think we've made some good additions."

Vermes traded with New England for U.S. international Benny Feilhaber, helping to fill the void left by Espinoza in the midfield. He also acquired Argentine striker Claudio Bieler as one of the club's designated players, giving Sporting KC a dangerous goal scorer to help fill in for the production that Kamara took with him across the Atlantic Ocean.

Bieler spent last season with LDU Quito in Ecuador's top league, scoring 20 goals in 36 games.

"Claudio adds another attacking person to our team," Vermes said. "I think Ike Opara was a great pickup for us, adding depth to the central part of the defense. He has a huge ceiling. And Josh Gardner is another guy who should be able to help us defensively on the left side."

Defense hasn't been much of a problem for Sporting KC, though. The club allowed 27 goals last season, by far the fewest in the league, and opens against a Union squad that scored 37 times in 2012.

After reaching the playoffs in its second season, Philadelphia struggled last year, going 10-18-6 and finishing eighth out of 10 teams in the East.

Philadelphia hopes to see major improvement offensively with the return of Sebastien Le Toux, who totaled 25 goals for the Union in 2010 and 2011 but was traded to Vancouver last year. After being traded once again to New York, Le Toux was then sent to Philadelphia in the offseason.

The Union also picked up Conor Casey, a proven scorer with 50 goals in 121 career MLS matches, as well as defender Jeff Parke. Having a veteran presence in front of young goalkeeper Zac MacMath will be crucial if the Union harbor playoff aspirations for the second time in four years.

"I think we made a lot of good changes and obviously I was very excited to come back here," Le Toux told the Union's official website. "This is a club that made the playoffs two years ago. Last year was tough and everything went the wrong way. There were no breaks. I like the changes made for this season and I'm very excited about the potential of this club."

Philadelphia has allowed a total of one goal in going 1-0-2 all-time at home against Sporting KC.

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