Wizards big on reserve matches

No longer will it be one or two MLS matches per week in which only the 11-14 players who have proven they deserve to see game time actually see time on the field.

After many MLS matches this season, or the next morning, each team's reserves will play in a competitive match that will allow players to improve their game and perhaps impress enough to see time come the next MLS encounter. As a correlation, MLS also expanded rosters to 28 players, up four from past seasons.

In what is a bye week for the Kansas City Wizards in MLS, they are simulating what is to come by having two matches -- Friday night against Southwest Missouri State in Springfield, Mo., and Saturday back in K.C. against the University of Missouri at Kansas City -- both designed to keep players sharp and allow them to show what they can do in a competitive environment.

For developmental players, like Wizards center back Dustin Branan, the extra games are key.

"It's going to be really good. Before, the guys that weren't playing weren't getting any games in. And it's going to be competitive; there's going to be something to play for," said Branan, a member of the A-League's Best XI last season when he played for the Minnesota Thunder.

Wizards coach Bob Gansler is another emphatic booster of the new reserve division.

"They know that it's not just an exercise; they know that it's a meaningful game. Although [assistant coach] Brian [Bliss] will do most of the detail work on that, I will always be there. This is not just another practice session -- you are being evaluated and analyzed. The games are going to be videoed and we are going to view them and use them for people to improve themselves," Gansler said. "This is your springboard to the other team."

Branan, in fact, might not be in MLS right now if it weren't for the reserve matches.

"If we didn't have the reserve league this year, I don't think I would have done it. That's what made me want to do it, to realize I was going to get games," he said. "[Plus] I'll be able to train with one of the best teams in the league everyday. I just felt like this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."

Gansler used Branan as an example of those who will benefit from the long-awaited arrangement.

"Dustin needs to play. Dustin needs to change his game a little bit to suit MLS; it's a lot quicker. He'll get a chance, he'll get more of a chance in our reserve games than playing in the A-League," said Gansler. "He's going to have people who are extremely keen on making their first string that he's going to be facing on a regular basis.

"It's heaven sent. All of us in coaching and administrative positions have had the reserve situation on our wish list since day one. We're glad MLS has gotten there and we're glad that adidas provided the main portion, if not all of the funding, for this. That $150 million, I know it's going to go quickly, but I know it's being spent well in terms of the business."

The reserve league should enable MLS to strengthen its talent base by nurturing previously unreachable talent in the A-League, and, similarly the college ranks, on a daily basis.

"I think there are definitely players in the A-League that can play in MLS," Branan said. "After the first 11 in the A-League, the talent starts to drop off a little bit whereas here you don't find that. [MLS] is a lot more competitive."

The increased preparedness of an larger number of players will have nearly unending positives for each MLS club.

"I'm not the only coach who has welcomed the bigger rosters. It gives us more players at practice, it raises the quality of the practice because of the numbers you can utilize," said Gansler, who has recently seen forward Davy Arnaud and midfielders Khari Stephenson and Jack Jewsbury rise out of the developmental ranks.

"It's going to enable us to keep a higher level of game going. The reserve guys are a little more important because they know they are going to get opportunities to play, so they better be sharp."

The Wizards first reserve division match will take place on Sun., April 17, the day after the senior team faces the MetroStars in New Jersey.

Robert Rusert is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.