G. Newman Lowrance
"Legacies" are an incredibly funny thing, and there's enough parallels between former Designated Player Omar Bravo's tenure in Kansas City and what's already being said of current marquee man Claudio Bieler. The two should not be confused.
The evening before Sporting Kansas City announced forward Claudio Bieler as the club's newest Designated Player, it was said to me by a very wise man on Twitter, that "everything is either an epic disaster or the greatest thing to ever happen. And you have to decide before it happens!" In this age of real-time social media and instant reaction, truer words have never been spoken.
And many early opinions were not kind to Sporting KC's newest borderline-millionaire forward, threatening "please carefully explain in a detailed manner the thought process in which you took to arrive at this very assessment" territory.
Taking my own thoughts one step past those initial, unsettling moments, I wondered how Bieler's relatively unknown status to Sporting fans compared to how some of the same people felt in the summer of 2010 when the signing of then-Designated Player Omar Bravo was announced, how his one-year stint with the team may have framed some opinions in a different light, and ultimately, how we will look back upon Bieler's future contributions to the club.
So, here I am, ready not to form my opinion on Bieler's time with Sporting KC (remember, he's only a week-and-a-half removed from being announced as a new player, but also yet to so much as lace up a pair of boots for the club), nor bestow upon the reader how they should regard him, but ready more so to lay the stepping stones for how we will arrive at the ultimate judgment of Bieler's Kansas City stay, whether fairly or wholly unfair.
Initially, the differing opinions regarding Bravo and Bieler are down to the familiarity of not only Sporting fans, but American soccer fans in general - many of whom following Major League Soccer in 2013 - will get their very first look at the Argentine-born Ecuadorian forward. Whereas, Bravo came to the club as a 62-time capped Mexican international, Chivas de Guadalajara club legend, and a 2006 FIFA World Cup veteran. Bravo was also a well-known commodity to a hugely adoring Hispanic population in Kansas City and hailed something of the city's Mexican ambassador.
Bieler comes with virtually no similar acclaim. Here is a fringe international level player, scorer of 87 career goals (Sporting's previous career high scorer Kei Kamara has 45 goals), and droves of fans have already labeled him as "a bad signing," or even worse, "a waste."
When Bravo came to Sporting, he came to an organization in search of its iconic figure, a player that would not only stand out on the field, but double as the club's forward most dignitary in the public spotlight. As 2010 played out, it was apparent Bravo was not that. His lack of desire to master the English language, frequent disinterest to interact with a worshipping Hispanic community and being an ill-fit to head coach Peter Vermes' system made him, in the end, short of the perfect investment, ensuring his premature Kansas City exit was best for all parties involved.
Bieler joins in this current setting not in a time of desperation or particular need, but as a luxury. He comes into an established squad of players that over the course of two-to-three years have learned, together, to win. Bieler is the so called "missing piece to the puzzle," designed not to stand as the focal point of everything constructed, but to simply coexist. Now is the club's time to be choosy and select that perfect, expensive, designer rug for the grand entryway, not fret over paint selections throughout the entire house.
Bieler is a player that from day one, will be fit into the team as Vermes and Co. see fit, not requiring the rest of the team and manner of play to be reworked and tailored to himself, as was often the case with Bravo. While Bravo was always best suited to play as a withdrawn forward just off the shoulder of the lead striker in a rigid 4-4-2 system, Bieler is the traditional advanced forward, capable of playing either as the true peak of an attack or dropping back into the rest of the team and linking play. In short, Bieler is the perfect fit stylistically for Sporting's 4-3-3 system. Only time will tell if he is the true answer, though.
Given the addition of Benny Feilhaber to a playmaking group that already boasts 11-goal winger Kei Kamara and 15-assist midfield boss/winger Graham Zusi, all the pieces are in place for Bieler to fit into the side seamlessly, given the assumption he's willing to take proper instruction and constructive criticism from coaching staff and teammates alike. He will have the benefit of proper wingers - whatever your opinion of Zusi as wide player - one either side of him, a through ball-seeking number "10" in the rear, and a large chunk of Sporting's all-time league record 542 shots taken in the 2012 season to call his own in 2013.
With two segments squarely in his corner reasoning why Bieler could be a success in Kansas City, there's also a different side of the "just a piece to the puzzle, not meant to be the star" argument that weighs heavily in the opposite direction. When a player is brought into a team to "not be the guy, but just a piece to the puzzle," a coach's intention in saying that is to take pressure off the new guy and bring expectations back into the realm of the possible.
What actually ends up happening subliminally in everyone's mind, is said player is labeled as the variable of an experiment, pinpointed when the team either succeeds or fails. If Sporting win MLS Cup 2013, Bieler will be hailed as the missing piece that was needed all along and the hero of the day. If Sporting bow out at some point in the Eastern Conference playoffs to the Houston Dynamo again, he'll be dubbed "the wrong guy," and he was "never really player as advertised."
Bravo scored nine goals in his only season with Sporting KC. Bieler could score two-dozen in the regular season, and it could be largely a moot point. And Bieler must be judged in this way. Sporting KC were a two-time Eastern Conference first-place finishing team before his arrival, and they probably would have topped a third consecutive year without him. What they weren't before him, though, was a team capable of the vital goal in the big game to put themselves into the MLS Cup Final. Fair or unfair, that will ultimately be how Bieler's time in Kansas City will be judged, as it should.
But please, jury, do us all a favor; don't rush to decide the verdict before the opening arguments have ever been presented.