As the 2010 FIFA World Cup continues to captivate the minds of Americans nationwide, what better time to get behind the professional soccer team in your backyard?
While the Kansas City Wizards aren't the US men's national team, they are from Kansas City and they are the closest we have to a Manchester in town. (Until July 25, that is.) So, for anyone that may be new to the team, or the sport in general, a quick introduction to the team and the players and faces that make it up.
Welcome to soccer in Kansas City.
The 2009 MLS season saw the Wizards endure one of the most frustrating in the franchise's proud history. The team lacked the ability to score timely goals, or many goals at all, for that matter and it showed in the final league standings. They finished third from the bottom in the entire league standings.
Before the end of the '09 season, on August 4, now-former manager Curt Onalfo was fired by the team and technical director Peter Vermes, a former US Men's National Team standout, took over as interim manager. Vermes was chosen as the permanent replacement to Onalfo in the offseason and would quickly put his own personal touch on the roster.
Personal, as in bringing in nine new players - over one-third of the roster. The first, and perhaps biggest move, though, came before last season even ended.
In September, Vermes traded for Sierra Leone striker Kei Kamara (pronounced: K-EYE) from the . (Kamara has gone on to lead the team in scoring thus far in 2010.) Once the offseason hit, out were perennial stalwarts Herculez Gomez (of current US national team fame), designated player and goalkeeper , among others.
In were a largely international crop of players that had previously in their career been at big clubs overseas. The most exciting of these players, Englishman and winger Ryan Smith, grew up in the Arsenal youth system and had spent time in various other clubs in England. He's only gone on to become one of the most entertaining to watch players in MLS this year, racking up one goal and five assists, officially.
If you show me a good soccer team, I'll look down the roster and show you a talented holding midfielder. Every team needs a player in the center of the field that can possess the ball and keep possession; someone that can pick out the correct pass and make it; someone that can track back defensively, but also start a break the other way. The 2009 Wizards didn't have that player. The 2010 Wizards do. His name is Stephane Auvray (pronounced: OH-VRAY) and he is the captain of the Guadeloupe national team. He has long dreadlocked hair and was instantly, from the first game, one of the best players on the team.
As you've probably seen with the US national team, the other necessity for a successful soccer team is a sturdy goalkeeper that can bail you out when your back is against the wall. For four seasons, Kevin Hartman was a more than reliable, top level MLS keeper for the Wizards. But, as already stated, Vermes changed things up in goal and brought in bright white-haired Danish keeper Jimmy Nielsen.
At first, many fans were up in arms over not only not re-signing Hartman, but also paying Nielsen, an unheard of player to most, more than Hartman had been making. Well, fans aren't always right, because we sure got the Nielsen thing wrong. He too, like Smith and Auvray, has become integral parts of the regenerated Wizards. Nielsen has been up for league Save of the Week no less than seven of the eight weeks this season, twice resorting to deflecting the ball away from goal with his face.
In soccer, and MLS especially, it is very rare for a team to shake up a roster and bring in as many new players, especially foreign players, as the Wizards did from '09 to '10, but by most accounts, the transformation has been a success, whether or not the results have been seen on the scoreboard just yet.