On Saturday night, the Kansas City Wizards head down to the heart of Texas, where they will take on one of the hottest teams in Major League Soccer at the moment. The last time the Wizards hit the road to face the side from Dallas, they were thumped by an embarrassing 6-0 margin. Then-Wizards keeper Kevin Hartman, who was in the KC goal that game, is now the starting keeper for FCD. Good omen? Maybe.
Outside of a 1-0 loss to league-leading LA Galaxy, FC Dallas has picked up 15 of a possible 21 points (four wins and three draws) since the start of May. FCD, who started the season without a win through their first four league games but did manage three draws, have climbed to fifth (18 points) in the hotly contested Western Conference and sit only three points back of third place Colorado Rapids. Meanwhile, Kansas City sit in an identical fifth place in the weaker Eastern Conference, but do so with only 12 points.
If the Wizards hope to kick their currently poor form of play and get back on the right track with a positive result (we'll take a draw, please) on Saturday, they're going to have to make a change or two and answer a few questions they haven't been up to the task of for much of the last two months.
1. Can We Just Not Give Away Three Easy Goals On Mistakes This Week?
If you're a Wizards defender or keeper and you're not named Michael Harrington, you were either dreadfully awful last week in KC's 3-0 home loss to New York Red Bulls because your name is Aaron Holbein, or it just didn't matter because Holbein made enough mistakes for the both of you. After that game, I basically called out the entire KC backline.
Last week's poor defensive play brought about roster changes this week. On Wednesday, the Wizards sent two second round MLS Super Draft picks to Philadelphia Union for 29-year old defender Shavar Thomas. Thomas isn't new to Kansas City. From 2004 to 2006, Thomas appeared in 76 league games for KC, starting 70 of them. Coach Peter Vermes is banking on Shavar's MLS experience and the size and strength to shore up the shaky KC backline. If Vermes decides against starting Matt Besler alongside Jimmy Conrad, one would think Thomas would get the nod over Holbein after last week's performance.
To make room for Thomas on the roster, the Wizards cut ties with Colombian defender Pablo Escobar who joined the team in the offseason. Escobar possesses extreme athleticism and potential, but was too prone to mistakes for Vermes' liking.
That's not even the best news about the backline. Back from the Honduran World Cup team and into the KC backline is regular starting leftback Roger Espinoza. Espinoza played in and started Honduras' first two World Cup games and was often the best player on the field for his country's side. Not only is it great to have a player of such caliber back, but having the regular leftback with the team, Harrington will now shift back to his natural rightback position. With one of the league's best wide defender combinations back intact, gone should be the days of being run ragged down the flanks by opposing wingers.
2. Who Pushes The Attack Forward From The Midfiled?
With the suspension of captain Davy Arnaud following his red card (again) late last week, there is now a huge void to be filled in the middle of the field. Arnaud is a very forward attack-minded player and has masterminded many a KC goal.
For the first time since suffering a knee injury in practice back in mid-May, much-missed holding midfielder Stephane Auvray has not been listed on the team's injury report this week. Well, at least not on the official MLS website. (ADVICE: For anyone new to soccer or MLS, keep expectations tempered for the league site.) That is great news not only because Arnaud will not be eligible this game, but also because possessing the ball and not giving it away constantly - Auvray's greatest value to this team - has been a real problem area during his absence. Yes, the downward spiral started before his injury, but it only got worse tenfold without him. It's tough to score without having the ball, after all.
So, with Auvray back in the mix - hopefully to start the game, even if he doesn't play a full 90 minutes - hold your breath that that ends Craig Rocastle's streak of games started at one. That gives you Auvray and Jack Jewsbury as two starting midfielders. If Vermes is asking me, (and he's not) my third starter is Graham Zusi without even taking a moment to think about it. I may be a Zusi fanboy, but it's not without good reason. In fact, even after Arnaud comes back from suspension, I would start Zusi a game in his place, just to send a message to the captain.
For me, the thing that separates Zusi apart from the rest of the midfielders - Arnaud included - are his late runs into the box behind the initial development of the attack. On a team that constantly fails to put a man on the second level just behind target strikers Kei Kamara and Josh Wolff, Zusi often times is the only one to find himself there. I've seen far too many crosses from this team go behind the target in front of goal and roll all the way to the sideline and out of bounds because there wasn't any kind of support play from the midfielders.
If for no other reason than that, Zusi starts.
3. Why Is This Team So Much Worse On The Road?
Well, not that they're particularly great at home either, but this team S-T-R-U-G-G-L-E-S away from home.
For those that don't know this yet, the stadium where the Wizards play their home games - Community America Ballpark - isn't "full-size regulation" soccer field size. It is, of course, a baseball stadium and the home of the Kansas City T-Bones of the Northern League baseball league. Being that it is a baseball stadium by design, a 100 to 120x60 to 80-foot soccer field doesn't just fit right into a baseball field designed patch of grass ever so perfectly.
Obviously, a shorter field means that you can go from end to end quicker than you could do so on a larger field. This is something that the Wizards have become rather good at when playing at home and have taken advantage of to varying degrees of success. With a big target forward in the middle like Kamara, if you can find him from a goal kick, you can start your attack anywhere from 15 to 20 yards closer to goal. The other thing the smaller field does is make precise passing more important. The same amount of defenders in a smaller space means less ground to cover. Give the ball away and they, too, can start the attack 15 to 20 yards closer to goal.
Anyway, the Wizards have exactly zero road wins this year to go along with a singular draw and four losses. That's an 0-4-1 road record. While it's tough to win on the road in MLS, hoping for a tie isn't asking for a new Ferarri. It can be done, and it will have to be done if the Wizards plan to make any sort of push upwards in the standings before the season is over. Forget the fact that FCD is playing incredibly well right now (which they are) and let's start the positive vibes now. Pizza Hut Park, home of FCD, is notorious for its underwhelming crowds, even for MLS standards.
This is the week that this team wakes up a bit and scores a goal, or maybe even two. If it does happen, look for it to come on set pieces - either a corner kick or a free kick. With either a Kamara-Teal Bunbury or Kamara-Wolff strike partnership up top, KC holds a slight size advantage. Eventually they're going to accidentally knock one into the opponent's goal, right?