Eric Kronberg (right) is expected to be Sporting Kansas City's starting goalkeeper, when it opens the 2014 season. (Photo: Jamila St. Ann)
KANSAS CITY, Kansas -- It's never easy to replace a goalkeeper like Jimmy Nielsen, but that was the task for Sporting Kansas City, following the Dane’s retirement two days after the club captured the 2013 MLS Cup.
Last season's primary backup, Eric Kronberg, has been presented with the chore of plugging the hole. Looking for an experienced netminder to fill the number two slot on the depth chart, Sporting traded for the Columbus Crew’s Andy Gruenebaum.
Both Kronberg and Gruenebaum have been impressive so far this preseason, according to goalkeeping coach John Pascarella: "(Kronberg) is starting to grow into more of a leadership role, which is really what we expect of him this year coming in as the number one goalkeeper. And Andy has fit in very, very well in terms of the team chemistry and just the bonding that's going on.”
Kronberg agreed with that sentiment, telling CONCACAF.com, "(Andy's) been great. He's pretty focused, but he's also a pretty fun-loving guy and we keep training light. It's been great having him and he's an excellent goalkeeper."
At the 2006 MLS Combine, prior to that year’s SuperDraft, the goalkeeping duo were roommates. From that level of familiarity, Gruenebaum stated that there is a comfort level between them from having an established relationship.
"We got to, obviously, introduce ourselves and get to know each other a little bit,” expressed the 31-year-old Gruenebaum, “but really, from then on, it was just kind of pleasantries, as in 'Hey, how's everything going,' every time we saw each other, so to really get to know him here has been a pleasure.”
Having backed up three different starting goalkeepers, one could imagine Kronberg had his patience tested as he waited for the opportunity to start.
"It was obviously very hard to be patient," said Kronberg, 30, the club’s longest-tenured player. "Everybody wants to play and I'm no different, but I had a team-first mentality and had to respect the coaches' decisions at the time and be the best pro I could be and that's where my concentration lies."
Stepping into a leadership role is something Sporting KC's coaching staff is expecting from Kronberg this season.
"He is growing into that role," Pascarella said. "Physically, technically on the goalkeeping side of it, there's absolutely no concerns at all. He's a very, very good goalkeeper. The piece that he has to grow into, and this is already happening, but it's progressing every day, is the leadership piece of it, and because he hasn't had to do that before.”
Due to Sporting’s recent success in MLS and CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) play, leadership will be more important than ever. Winning titles domestically, as well as shooting for them internationally, can create external and internal pressures.
"I'm sure everyone has expectations for this team, and we have our own set of expectations, and I guarantee you, they're very similar," finished Gruenebaum, a CCL veteran. "One of the hardest things to do is defend a title. We've been there in Columbus. Everyone's got a target on your back.
“You have to just remind yourself that this is a game that we all enjoy doing and millions of people would give anything to do the same thing, so, at the end of the day, it's a game and it's supposed to be fun, so you have to keep that in mind as well."
Sporting Kansas City will meet Cruz Azul in the CCL quarterfinals at home on March 12 and then head to Mexico City for the second leg seven days later.