Like every team in MLS, the Kansas City Wizards are looking to get off to a blazing start in the 2005 season on Saturday. The obstacle for the 2004 Western Conference champion, who now occupies the Eastern Conference, is an old foe with a new shimmer -- a Colorado Rapids side sporting a new coach and some potent roster additions.
"With a new coach, I'm sure they're talking new attitude, I'm sure they're talking new intensity, I'm sure they're talking about new goals and new achievements, so I think they will come in here trying to get off on the right foot just like the rest of us," said the Kansas City's enduring boss, Bob Gansler. "With a new guy in charge, it's probably at a higher level."
Owing to Gansler's longevity in soccer in the United States, he has coached an increasing number of players who are now moving into the coaching ranks. The Rapids new head man, Fernando Clavijo, is one of them.
"He's a knowledgeable guy -- he's obviously paid his dues in terms of being a player. I had him in the early '90s with the national team for a half-a-dozen games or so, maybe more," said Gansler. "He's worked in MLS [New England Revolution head coach from 2000-2002], and more recently, he was with the Haitian national team. That's always an additional experience when you get to coach a national team whether it's your own or some other country's. I think he's well prepared for this task, and I know he's a hard-working guy, conscientious guy, emotional guy."
Clavijo inherited a team with solid veterans like U.S. national team players Pablo Maestroni and Joe Cannon, as well as long-time MLSers Mark Chung and Chris Henderson. However the attack was relatively anemic last season putting in only 29 goals in 30 matches, the least potent offense in MLS. Adding to that, explosive forward John Spencer retired at the end of the campaign.
To ignite the attack, Clavijo and his staff procured English winger Terry Cooke and former Columbus Crew forward Jeff Cunningham. Cooke is an unknown entity at this point, but Gansler will make sure that Nick Garcia and the rest of the Wizards' back line keep close tabs on the dynamic Cunningham.
"Cunningham is as good as a one-on-one player as we've had in this league. When he's on, he's extremely difficult to stop," said Gansler. "We had difficulty with him when he was with Columbus and I'm sure that the new setting is something that will highly motivate him, not only in this game, but the season. We're going to have to be more aware of him than ever."
The Wizards frontline duo of Josh Wolff, who returned to Kansas City on Thursday after gaining 20 minutes with the U.S. national team against Guatamala the night before, and Davy Arnaud are well known around the league. Thus the outcome of the match may hinge on the ability of the midfielders and backs to feed the dangerous duo.
"It's simple game. You've got to treasure the ball. Possession is extremely important. When we're good, we do that. When we're not quite as good, more often than not, that's where we fail," Gansler said. "Our last tuneup game, we took care of the ball extremely well against Real Salt Lake. Our last game against Alajuelense [a 3-1 friendly loss in Costa Rica],it was just the opposite; we were a turnover machine. You've got to take care of the ball, and [if you do] you will create opportunities for yourself. And then you've got to finish."
The midfield should lineup with Kerry Zavagnin and Diego Gutierrez in the middle flanked by Chris Klein on the right and most likely, third-year player Jack Jewsbury on the left.
Jewsbury enjoyed a coming up last season contributing solid play and timely strikes like his aggregrate goal overtaking wonder strike against San Jose in the Western Conference Semifinal last November.
Unbeknownst to many, Jewsbury had suffered a shoulder injury against the MetroStars on Sept. 4, as he came crashing down from a 50/50 challenge. The injury lingered throughout the rest of the season, but surgery performed three days after MLS Cup 2004 to prepare the torn labrum -- the soft fibrous tissue that surrounds the shoulder socket to help stabilize the joint -- was successful and Jewsbury is now able to perform such tasks as a throw-in without pain. The 23-year-old is anxious to begin the season on a positive.
"We want to set the tone for the season from the first game," said Jewsbury, who contributed a goal and an assist in the last warmup match versus Real Salt Lake last Friday in Tulsa, Okla. "It will come down to how we play, and I want to come in and make things happen."
Jewsbury and his mates will have to break down a Rapids' defense that tied for second in least goals allowed last season with 32, only two off the Wizards' stingy pace.
Last season the Wizards outdueled the Colorado side by winning three of four encounters, outscoring them 5-3 with the three Rapids strikes all coming in a 3-1 victory in Denver on Sept. 9.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.