A month and a half ago, the Kansas City Wizards appeared to be decided underdogs to qualify for the MLS playoffs. Plagued by inconsistency and struggling to find an identity, the team languished in last place of the Eastern Conference in mid-September and seemed destined to miss the postseason for the third time in four seasons. However, thanks to a few player acquisitions, a change in tactics, and a large number of home games, Kansas City finished strong, winning five of their last seven, even clinching a playoff spot before their final game of the season.
Their reward is a home and home series against the Columbus Crew, the runaway winners of the Supporter’s Shield, and with such a deep and balanced roster, it is not hard to see why. Veteran Frankie Hejduk and Chad Marshall, a favorite to win both defender and comeback player of the year awards, anchor the back line. Brian Carroll’s steady performances in central midfield allow Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven to push forward on the flanks, and Alejandro Moreno’s always delivers a yeoman-like work up top. The club is so deep that coach Sigi Schmid has the luxury to bring Pat Noonan and Emmanuel Ekpo off the bench.
Despite the Crew’s embarrassment of riches, Guillermo Barros Schelotto is the true engine of this team. Operating in a free role in front of the midfield four, the former Boca Juniors legend has delivered an MVP-type performance for the Crew with seven goals and a league-leading nineteen assists and is a threat from both set pieces and open play. With Schelotto pulling the strings, the Crew finished second in the league with fifty goals even though no Columbus player turned in a ten goal season, a testament to Schelotto’s talent’s and the Crew’s incredible balance.
This season, Columbus dominated the Wizards, including a 3-0 drubbing at Community America Ballpark in June, one of only two games Kansas City lost at home in 2008. However, all three of those games took place before the All-Star Game, and the Wizards have made many changes since they have faced Columbus. Herculez Gomez and Abe Thompson were both acquired early in September, and both have contributed to Kansas City’ late season resurgence. Thompson has become an Alejandro Moreno-type forward for Kansas City whose hard work helps open up the game for other players. Gomez, meanwhile, has been a constant presence on the right side of the Wizards midfield, and he scored perhaps the biggest goal of the season for Kansas City with a last second game winner against San Jose in the team’s penultimate regular season game.
Head coach Curt Onalfo also made a key change in his midfield by pairing Davy Arnaud and Jack Jewsbury in central midfield. Both are industrious players in the middle of the park, but unlike previous Wizards central midfield partnerships, both are also capable of scoring goals as well. The Wizards have also received more production from their forwards since September. Josh Wolff celebrated his return to Kansas City with a goal in his debut in the 3-3 draw against the Crew, and the American international accumulated three goals and three assists in twelve games. Wolff suffered an injury before the match against San Jose, but Wolff’s absence has opened the door for the reemergence of Claudio Lopez. The Argentine’s play dropped precipitously by midseason, and he was actually benched for several games in September and October. However, Lopez seemed rejuvenated in his return to the starting lineup with two goals and three assists in the final two games of the regular season.
If the Wizards have one clear advantage over the Crew, it could be in goal. Kansas City’s Kevin Hartman has won two MLS Cups in his career, and the veteran’s play this season has at times kept his team in the game. Meanwhile, for the Crew, Will Hesmer will be playing in his first postseason.
The Wizards know they can rely on Hartman to make a big stop in key situations, but despite Hesmer’s solid play this season, there will be questions about his reaction to the spotlight of the playoffs.
The Wizards may be hot entering the playoffs, and the MLS post-season has seen its share of major upsets. However, they still face a daunting task. The Crew are well-coached and possess several players capable of turning a game. As cliche as it may sound, every player for Kansas City must turn in a superlative effort in order to win this series.