and yet the most arduous portion of the journey remains. Training camps began back in February and the last kick of the 2005 season for all 12 in Major League Soccer will not be taken until MLS Cup 2005 on Nov. 13 in Frisco, Texas.
In between, for certain, there will be 32 MLS matches (up two from 2004), and for the exceptionally successful, possibly four Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup games and four MLS playoff contests. Throw in the various national team contests for an expanding number of domestic and foreign players plus the All-Star game, reserve matches, training ... and for an MLS player it's a marathon, much of it in the heat of the summer as well.
What it all boils down to is that in MLS, arguably more than in any other soccer league in the world, the non-starters, as Kansas City Wizards' coach Bob Gansler prefers to call them, are vital to a team's season-long success.
"Without a doubt [non-starters have a huge impact]. Ideally you can keep your 11 best guys on the field at all times," said Gansler. "But it's a long year, and there are not just even two more [games] than last year, we're talking about 40 games -- one down and 39 to go -- because the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trek is a four-game adventure and the playoffs, including that Nov. 13th game that we have circled on our calendar, that's another four. You've got to have quality backups, at the same time, the team has got to be extremely fortunate."
Indeed, a wide variety of ailments -- such as fatigue, lethargy, and most commonly, injury -- can derail a club, as Gansler and the Wizards experienced last season in losing offensive catalysts Preki, Igor Simutenkov, and Chris Klein and then starting goalkeeper Tony Meola for extended times.
So are the 2005 Wizards deep enough to surmount any obstacles that may come their way no matter the area of the field that may be affected?
"I'd like to think we are equally well-stocked everywhere. But you always want more," Gansler said.
At goalkeeper: "Will Hesmer is ready to play and take a chance in our league. He's a good athlete. He, on a daily basis, shows his wares, and we all appreciate it. Bo knows the young man is ready. We feel good about that," said Gansler.
"In the back, with Alex [Zotinca] not starting as of late, [he], for sure, is a quality replacement there on the wide side. [In the middle], Shavar [Thomas] was a starter over half the year last year. He is more than anxious.
"We feel good about the two guys that we have from [USL First Division] Minnesota [Thunder] in Dustin [Branan] and Brian [Roberts]. They are looking to step in there too. Brian can go wide because he does as well physically as anyone we have on the roster. Brian Roberts is a good athlete."
In the midfield, Gansler also has options.
"We like Alex to help in the middle of the field as well, and we've got Khari [Stephenson] there, and we've got Preki. That's a good augmentation there. We look at Diego Walsh more as a forward, but he's an attacking player -- he can play anywhere in the midfield. And where he has shown best is the higher we play him, whether that's midfield or forward. He's good."
And up front, said Gansler: "Scott Sealy has had his good moments early on. And Ryan Pore is waiting for his opportunity. Now we've got [Justin] Detter back too, finally, I hope he's healed. He's a strong forward player."
Clearly Gansler believes the Wizards run deep enough on all fronts, but does his team have enough tactical flexibility to adjust to any in-match situation?
"Diego Walsh can come in at a number of different positions, but if we need an out-and-out forward, we've got Scott Sealy. Now we can keep Davy [Arnaud] in the game along with Sealy and Josh [Wolff]," Gansler said. "And we've got people who can shore things up in the back if we have to play with an extra guy deep at midfield or behind the back players in more of a sweeping role. Actually that's what [Dustin Branan] did in Minnesota. He was an out-and-out sweeper, kept things in front of him. Shavar gives you a little different wrinkle on that."
Ganlser's confidence is high, as any other coach's would be early in the season, but no adversity has risen.
"I like our team. We've got a nice balance of things. But once again, got to hedge a little bit, on paper we look like we are stronger than last year, and we hope that we are. We'll see whether we can prove it," he said.
Perhaps the key to keeping a squad playing at a high level continually and overcoming the treacherous hindrances of the season, besides having a good athletic trainer like nine-year Wizards veteran Chet North, lies in ensuring a competitive environment in practice every day to ready the troops.
"You've got to keep a competitive atmosphere. It is about getting your best 11 out there at any given time and those things can change. You got to keep your performance up and take your opportunities," said Gansler.
The second match in the young Wizards season is Saturday at Giants Stadium against the MetroStars. Already Gansler may have to call upon a non-starter to fill in as right back Sasha Victorine is listed as probable due to a hamstring strain.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.