After an abysmal 2009 season, the Kansas City Wizards will look to several new faces to change their fortunes in 2010.
Technical Director and now full time Manager Peter Vermes does have a major task on his hands after witnessing his club’s performance last season. The 2009 Wizards hoped they could build on a fantastic finish to the 2008 season when they qualified for the playoffs after finding themselves in the basement of the Eastern Conference in mid September. Through June, the team kept themselves within shouting distance of the league leaders, but starting in the July, the wheels came off.
Kansas City only managed to score one goal in July and August combined, and were it not for Claudio Lopez’s miraculous 55 yard bomb against the Galaxy, the Wizards would have smashed the team’s all time record for consecutive minutes without a goal.
The nadir of the season came in early August when the team traveled to Dallas in need of a victory. Instead, they left the Lone Star State with an embarrassing 6-0 defeat, a result that ultimately led to the firing of Head Coach Curt Onalfo. Vermes took over as interim manager, but there was little he could do as the team finished the year 3-3-6 under his watch.
Vermes became the full time manager in the offseason, and as is expected of a team that finished third from last in the league, he has made a major overhaul of his roster. Amongst the many players that were traded, waived, or left unsigned were Lopez, goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, forward Adam Christman, midfielder Kurt Morsink, and defender Lance Watson.
Danish goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen will replace Hartman as the club could not come to contract terms with the MLS veteran. 2009 Hermann Trophy Award winner Teal Bunbury, whose father, Alex, played for the Wizards in 1999 and 2000, will look to add more options for Vermes in the attack, and Vermes brought in Colombian defender Pablo Escobar to add depth to the back line. Kansas City has also been linked with Indian forward Sunil Chhetri, whose signing could be imminent as he has flown in to Kansas City for a second tryout.
However, Vermes has concentrated most of his new signings to the midfield. Guadeloupean midfielder Stephane Auvray has seemingly solidified his place in the starting lineup with an excellent offseason. Vermes has also found an exciting left winger in former Arsenal academy player Ryan Smith, and the Wizards hope that he will provide the pure speed on the flank that the team has lacked for some time. In addition to Auvray and Smith, Kansas City also picked up Moldovan Igor Kostrov, Englishman Craig Rocastle, and Senegalese (and former Metrostar) Birahim Diop. This newly found depth in midfield may push Jack Jewsbury to the bench despite being a mainstay in the starting lineup for the past three seasons.
Not only will Kansas City feature several new faces this season, but several returning players from last season will be playing in new positions. Roger Espinoza, a left winger in his first two seasons in Kansas City, has been converted to left full back. Michael Harrington, who has play both as a left back and in the midfield, has been moved to right back. Chance Myers, a fullback that has been plagued by injuries and health problems since being selected as the #1 overall pick in the 2008 Superdraft, has been played as a right winger, and he has had many excellent performances in the preseason.
For many Wizards fans, their first chance to see the retooled squad will come this Saturday against a familiar foe: DC United led by their new head coach, Curt Onalfo. Onalfo may have arrived in Kansas City in 2007 promising (and ultimately failing) to deliver an attractive and attacking style of soccer, but his task since taking over this offseason for Tommy Soehn has been to try to shore up a lackluster defense. Onalfo’s big defensive signing, Juan Manuel Pena, may not be available for United as the Bolivian is still waiting for approval of his work visa.
If the Wizards hope to win this weekend and to have a successful season overall, much will depend on their ability to control midfield, and their ability to attack from the flanks. Auvray will be the key in central midfield, and Espinoza, Smith, Harrington, and Myers have both the skill and speed to punish opponents who try to clog the middle against Kansas City, a tactic that flustered the Wizards last season.
Many experts have the Wizards finishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference this season, but such an outlook may be a bit shortsighted. While the club has not made huge headlines around the league for their offseason moves, they certainly have not stood pat. Should Vermes’ moves pan out, the Wizards could certainly pose a significant challenge for any team this season.