The Tweet and Lowdown:
Forget about the stadium in 2011; the Wizards need to dig in now. New coach Peter Vermes has a mandate for change.
Setting the Scene:
The Wizards officially broke ground on their new soccer-specific stadium in January, and the promise of 2011 might be a worthwhile distraction from the club’s hopes in 2010. Few teams lost more than Kansas City during the offseason, thanks in part to the departures of Claudio Lopez and Hercules Gomez. MLS record-setter Kevin Hartman is also gone and now manning the net with Dallas, meaning there’s a void in goal for the first time in four seasons.
But change is in the air in Kansas City, where technical director Peter Vermes has taken the coaching reins for good after his midseason move last August, and hasn’t fallen short on the necessary rhetoric to rebrand a struggling franchise. The question, though, is whether he has the talent. Last year’s leading scorer Josh Wolff is still doing more than just plugging away up top, and Davy Arnaud and Jimmy Conrad round out a veteran trio most teams in the league would adore. Add in a healthy Kei Kamara, Hungarian import Zoltan and Hermann Trophy winner Teal Bunbury, and the Wizards could give their fans something to cheer for over those wonderful sounds of construction along Interstate-70.
Players In: Jimmy Nielsen (Vejle), Stéphane Auvray (Vannes OC), Pablo Escobar (Deportivo Cali), Ryan Smith (Crystal Palace), Teal Bunbury (Akron), Birahim Diop (FC Tiligul-Tiras Tiraspol)
Players Out: Kevin Hartman (FC Dallas), Hercules Gomez (Puebla), Claudio Lopez
Coaching Staff: Peter Vermes (interim coach last season)
Star Attraction: Jimmy Conrad
Few players are more established as the face of a franchise than Conrad. The 33-year-old defender is entering his eighth season with the club and 12th in the league, and might have as much say in the club’s future as he’s had in its past. If the Wizards hope to transform the franchise as Vermes has indicated, it’s Conrad who can help make the transition a smooth one for the players, especially if he’s healthy. He’s started in at least 24 games each of the past three seasons and in all but three since 1999.
Unsung Hero: Matt Besler
Besler is a rarity of sorts for MLS, especially in a state like Kansas. Rarely do homegrown heroes pan out the way the 22 year-old defender has done with the Wizards, rocketing out of nearby Overland Park to start 26 games in his rookie season in 2009. Taken by the club with the eighth overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, Besler fit seamlessly into the fold last year, and that consistency will be crucial with a potentially sticky situation as the team tries to establish a starting goalkeeper on the fly.
Ready for Primetime: Kei Kamara
Kamara has bounced around each of the last two seasons, but he’s in Kansas City to stay. He and Vermes’ strong relationship led to a multi-year deal signed in February, meaning that the days of packing his bags are done after stints with Columbus, San Jose and Houston since the start of 2008. Whether that translates into success will depend on if he can capitalize on a career-high six goals last season and some international experience with the Sierra Leone national team. The Wizards will need his offensive punch to replace Lopez’s seven goals and team-high eight assists last season.
Storylines to Watch:
No story on the field was bigger during the Wizards’ offseason than the departure of Hartman, so the club’s quest to replace him trumps just about everything in the immediate future. Last year’s backup, Eric Kronberg, appeared to have the inside track during the preseason until the addition of Nielsen, a Danish pro who spent the past two seasons with Vejle Boldklub. As many as four goalkeepers were vying for Hartmann’s spot this spring, and the team’s early-season fortunes could hinge on who’s in net.
The Wizards netted an extra international roster spot in the February trade for teen phenom Luis Gil, and how well the additions of Auvray, Smith and Escobar pan out will be important. The rookie watch will undoubtedly fall on Bunbury, last year’s top collegiate player who skipped his final season with Akron to suit up early in MLS.
What He Said:
“We need to be competitive not just with every match we play, but within our team, at every position. Our guys need to push the envelope at every spot if we’re going to get the results on a Saturday night. If we can do that, we can be successful.”
– Head Coach Peter Vermes
If Everything Goes Right:
There’s nowhere to go but up for Kansas City, which won the third fewest games in the league in 2009 after reaching the conference finals as recently as 2007. And there’s plenty at stake for Vermes, who has bluntly expressed that the franchise is at a crossroads this season. If all goes well and the team can adjust to Vermes’ coaching style and the addition of its new international players, there’s no reason to think the Wizards can’t compete for the seventh or eighth playoff spot and hopefully get hot in November.