More questions off field than on for K.C.
In 2003, the Wizards finished with a record of 11-10-9 and made their way to the Western Conference Final before losing to eventual MLS Cup champion San Jose Earthquakes in overtime at San Jose.
Last season, head coach Bob Gansler and his troops went a few steps further by earning 14 wins, the most in MLS during the regular season, and capturing the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the Western Conference crown and a berth in MLS Cup 2004 where they fell 3-2 to D.C. United.
Efficient, conscientious, consistent, and successful are four words that accurately describe the Kansas City Wizards for the last two seasons. There is little to question and little reason to think the 2005 MLS season will be different on the field for the Kansas City Wizards.
An offseason emphasis was put on improving the Wizards' attack and some new faces and some new wrinkles have been added to Gansler's tried-and-true system.
Although the Wizards have only had Scott Sealy, their first-round draft pick, in camp for the very end of the preseason, he justified the choice during a brief stint with the team in Costa Rica by scoring two goals in two matches.
"As I told him, we only have one opportunity to make a positive first impression. And he seized it. How good are you going to be in consequent games? That's your challenge," said Gansler. "I think he'll fit in well with the way we play up top, and we're looking forward to having him for a more extended period of time."
In 2004, the Wizards forward combo of Davy Arnaud and Josh Wolff accounted for half of the club's 38 goals, a team total that was down 10 from 2003. Rookie Sealy could offset the pressure on Wolff and Arnaud, as could others.
"I think we need somebody else to step up and give us some depth. Is that going to be Scott? We just saw him for a couple of days. However it was an impressive couple of days," said wide midfielder Chris Klein who ended the 2004 season as the Wizards' third-leading scorer with 16 points despite missing the last two months of the season with a torn ACL injury.
"I think we have to have a bit more variety in the attack. I think we'll still be an image of last year, but I think we need to add things to our game," Klein said. "With myself and Preki and some other guys I think we have to give it that added dimension. Some other guys are going to have to step up, guys like Jack Jewsbury and Diego Walsh who have done that in the past are going to have to continue that and add more this year."
Klein's point is crucial especially considering Wolff may miss a number of games due to national team duty, and if Klein shows well, so could he.
Looking for a balanced attack, Gansler is focusing on his fullbacks to help get the job done. Thus left back Jose Burciaga Jr. has been given more freedom to apply his considerable left foot to the attack and newcomer Sasha Victorine has recently been moved to right back.
"He just wants me to feel comfortable going forward. That was the main thing last year; I didn't go forward too much because I was too busy worrying about coming back," said the 23-year-old Burciaga, a veteran of U.S. youth national teams. "But coach told me this year not to worry about that, just go forward confidently and join the attack whenever I feel it is right."
Said Gansler: "We feel if we're going to play a four-man back line, a key is to get [the wide backs] out into midfield and beyond in order to help us offensively, so the reason we put [Victorine] there is not a defensive measure, it's an offensive measure. It seems to be working; it's a work in progress."
Even if the focus on a more consistent and varied attack doesn't pan out, Wolff is confident the Wizards' goal production will be sufficient.
"Our attack is not going to change too much. It's not that we were struggling for goals last year. We did fine -- we got to the finals and won an Open Cup, so all the talk about the attack not being that good is a little baffling at times," Wolff said.
"We try to [improve] just like with anything. With Davy and I up top, with Kleiny back -- certainly a good addition -- you don't start where you ended, you've got to work at it in preseason getting it right for the season and see how things go. You don't win a championship in March and April, I know that."
However, April could bring an answer to some of the off-field question marks that threaten to impact the side.
As revealed by key members of the Heart of America Soccer Foundation, April 30 is the date by which the current ownership situation, after Lamar Hunt's Dec. 9 announcement of his intent to sell the club, could become clearer.
Until clarification comes, the Wizards are likely to be affected, if only minimally.
"It would be naïve to say that it's not going to impact the team. It has impacted the team because I think when you look at players, more importantly when you look at our fan base, there is so much uncertainty out there it's bound to affect the mood around the organization. Does it affect how we play? I hope not. It hasn't yet, and I don't anticipate that it will," Klein said, now in his eighth MLS season -- all with Kansas City.
"But does it affect the mood around the organization? Absolutely. As professionals we have to minimize the affect that that's going to have when we take the field. We can always promise the fans that they're going to get the same effort and the same goal that we've ever had in our 10 years in Kansas City."
As far as questions facing his charges, Gansler is confident his team can positively answer anything that come along.
"The biggest question mark is always how will we do? The questions develop as you go along, and it's up to us to find short and long-term answers," he said. "Is there one thing? No. Is there a huge worry or a huge area where we are so competent that there is no way it can go awry? No. It's a new season with a new set of challenges, and I feel we have enough quality and enough resolve on this team to answer the questions as they come up. Let the season begin."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.