Though many will say soccer isn't a game of numbers, it certainly changes when tactical formations start getting tossed around. 4-4-2, 3-4-3, 3-5-2 -- they are all just numerical combinations. But when those numbers represent people and their differing responsibilities, the combination can mean so much more.
And so it was for the Kansas City Wizards when coach Bob Gansler and his staff decided to put their charges in a 3-5-2 scheme on the field in last Saturday's match against D.C. United.
Certainly motivated by his team's lack of consistency this season, and perhaps by his team's past struggles against United's preferred 3-5-2 formation, Gansler wanted to use the change to stir the competitive juices and focus his players' energies.
"When you mirror the other people's formation, the duel factor comes out more often. You've got the same people matching up out there just because of what their responsibilities are and what your responsibilities are. The idea was to make sure that you were the top dog in your part of the field," said Gansler. "The [1-0 victory] indicated that ever so barely that we did OK on that. I can't say there was anybody out there who just got whipped. On the other hand, we won the duels by a narrow margin and that's what translated into the win."
Winning the duels against the other side becomes a complicated affair for the players manning the back line and the midfield wings especially in a 3-5-2. Right away then, quick, precise, and alert communication is demanded from sweeper Nick Garcia and his fellow backs Shavar Thomas and Jose Burciaga Jr.
"Whether you play a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, you're going to give up certain parts of the field. For us, the outside flanks are of less importance, especially when I can keep Shavar and Jose next to me. It's all about the organization," said Garcia. "The fact that Shavar and Jose [did] a great job of staying within the 18-yard box and letting everything else outside be helped us out."
Thomas and Burciaga Jr. also took on a larger than usual job of instructing wide midfielders Chris Klein and Jack Jewsbury.
"It's Jose and Shavar telling Jack and Chris to get into position and help them out; that's the biggest thing," Garcia said. "You run into problems when you have Shavar and Jose who have to go out there -- they leave big gaps to fill. That's where it messes things up. The guys did well; the organization was superb."
For the left-sided Jewsbury, the increase in midfield numbers gave him a rare starting nod. After starting 15 of the 22 matches he was involved in last season, the Saint Louis University product has only started five of 17 so far in 2005. Saturday's start was his first in six matches.
"It's been a little while. We changed formations, that gave me a chance, and I'm trying to make the most of it. With that formation, you're up and down the line a lot - it was definitely a workload for me," said Jewsbury of his 70 minutes on the pitch. "But it's something I need to do to get back in shape hopefully so I can play a full 90."
The win would have never come to completion if it wasn't for Sasha Victorine taking on a larger attacking role in the center of midfield. The move involved a slight change in focus for the Wizards' most versatile player this season who has seen time at wingback, wide midfield and central midfield for Kansas City this season.
"It's nice to be able to get forward more and try to get into the attack. It's something I want to do more. I'm happy to be able to contribute," Victorine said, alluding to his 77th-minute strike that put K.C. in front.
But like the remainder of the team involved in the switch, he was forced to be more cognizant of his role during the match.
"It's a tough thing. I would like to be as free as possible to be able to go forward, but in the same respect, I also want to help these guys who are behind me," Victorine said.
"In a situation where they have to go out wide, I want to drop back in and make sure I'm covering them defensively. It's kind of a give and take because how much energy you put in defensively you lose offensively. It's trying to get a balance in helping them out but also trying to stay in connection with the goal as much as possible."
Being mindful of his defensive role enabled Victorine to play savior in the 86th minute as he cleared Matt Nickell's attempt off his team's goal line after a harrowing series in the Wizards' box.
"To be honest, I don't remember why I was in that area. I think my guy had made a run to the near post and I was with him and saw the ball go to the back post and hit off. I tucked in when Bo pushed that way. Fortunately he hit it where I was," he said.
Despite the success with the new formation, Gansler didn't commit to a continuance this weekend when Real Salt Lake visit Arrowhead Stadium.
"It was something that we looked up, and we had some success with. We should have some confidence in it. That's not to say that's the only way we're going to go out there," he said. "We have played in different ways this year already without anybody noticing, and we sure aren't going to make any announcements beforehand and say, 'Hey, guys, watch this.'
"We certainly have to be able to play it. With good teams it doesn't matter where you put the Xs and Os on the blackboard. It's a simple game - whether you've got it or they've got it there are things you have to do," he said. "I never make much of formations; it's the way the guys went out there and addressed the game. They weren't going to be denied."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.