Wizards looking to spread D.C.
Don't be surprised if Kansas City Wizards coach Bob Gansler and D.C. United coach Peter Nowak break out a chessboard at midfield during some point of their teams' match this weekend at RFK Stadium. The two are devout tactical technicians of historically successful clubs that have struggled to find consistency in 2005.
But with a win Saturday, surprisingly, each could find his side alone in second place in the tightly-contested Eastern Conference as the Wizards sit only one point behind second-place Chicago with United just a point farther back.
"Consistency is what makes the team good, as trite as that sounds. You've got to find a way to win, and that is going to be different every game," said Gansler.
Gansler put a few new twists into the Wizards' 4-4-2 formation previous to last week's match at Columbus - subsequently, the Wizards busted out in a 4-0 triumph against the Columbus Crew. But the Wizards' attack, currently tops in MLS with 14 goals in six matches, has struggled against United's compact, five-man midfield and utilitarian back line.
In fact, save for last year's MLS Cup, each team has struggled to solve each other's defense. Last season's two encounters were 1-0 affairs split between the clubs, and the last encounter, April 30 in Kansas City, produced a mostly tedious scoreless stalemate that left each side frustrated due much to the defensive tactics employed by each club.
Against Columbus, the Wizards played a system that serves them on both sides of the ball and somewhat resembles United's 3-5-2 in that they concentrated the midfield to close up gaps the opponent might otherwise exploit, something that teams have done at a sometimes alarming rate versus the Wizards this season.
"We're four in the midfield, but what we're doing is letting our outside backs come forward and be our width," explained Sasha Victorine, who moved into central midfield against the Crew. "We realize that the guys in the midfield in previous games had a lot of space to cover, and we just couldn't count on two guys to try and solve those problems - it was just too much work for them."
The tactical shift also has important ramifications for the offense. It is designed to counter concentrated and disciplined midfielders like those of D.C.'s.
Victorine, who enjoys playing centrally in the midfield where he feels he can influence the match more, realizes finding joy against United won't be easy.
"They tend to drop their two center midfielders in front of their backs pretty well to cut out service from wherever. We're going to be in a situation where we're going to have more guys in the middle of the field to get the ball," Victorine said. "If they are going to drop guys off and allow us to have more space in the middle of the field to receive the ball underneath their two defensive midfielders, then we can maybe attack from there.
"Ideally we're going to be able to draw those guys out of that space and allow those balls to get played into those forwards and now we'll have more guys underneath them to run off and move than we have before."
According to forward Davy Arnaud, Columbus adopted Nowak and United's defensive scheme in the second half after the Wizards orchestrated a three-goal first half in which Arnaud tallied his first of the season. And in that second half, the Wizards struggled to see much of the ball even though they scored a fourth in the 87th minute.
However, with Arnaud and Josh Wolff together again after a two-game separation, including the tie with D.C. where Arnaud lined up at left midfield, the Wizards attack seems to be rounding into form.
Wolff, the reigning MLS Player of the Week, and midfielder Chris Klein lead the team with a combined eight goals and seven assists. They are the prime indicators that Kansas City can hit teams through the middle via through-balls or balls over the top to the forwards, or via the flanks.
"[Wolff] moves off the ball well -- he makes great runs, he gets in behind teams, and he gets his chances," said Arnaud. "I don't think he's doing anything different from what he usually does. He's got himself in great spots like he always does."
Both Arnaud and Victorine emphasized the importance of the wings in K.C.'s offensive approach and how nice it is to have a prototype attacking winger like Klein.
"He brings another dimension to the attack. You can definitely tell the difference [in our attack] from when he's on the field and when he's not," said Arnaud. "He causes problems when he gets the ball wide and comes inside."
Said Victorine: "One of the things that's best about Klein, you'll get a lot of guys in outside midfield positions that whip balls in and who are good at finding targets, but he's also good at getting behind people and finishing things. I think that's one of the attributes that some people forget, how good he is at actually scoring goals rather than just setting them up."
If the Wizards can utilize their wing play through Klein and Alex Zotinca to divide United's midfield and open gaps, D.C. will have to adjust. Surely Nowak and his charges are armed and prepared for what the Wizards will bring, and they will bring it all, including a ready-and-willing Preki who will likely enter the fray if the game should be tight late.
"You've got to use everything you have, especially in D.C. It's a tough place to play," said Arnaud.
Although much sideline mastery will come into play that each coach believes will give his side an edge, it will be the execution and individuality of the players that will determine the outcome in this important early-season contest that could see early struggles for each side washed away.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.