KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Wizards president Robb Heineman has overseen growth in Kansas City since OnGoal purchased the team from the Hunt Family in 2006.
Though they fell seven points short of the playoffs this season, Heineman and manager Peter Vermes believe the resources are in place to make the Wizards a regional brand, complete with brand new stadium and a marquee player in Chivas de Guadalajara legend Omar Bravo.
MLSsoccer.com caught up with the Wizards president by phone to talk about the 2010 season. In part 1 of a two-part series, Heineman evaluates the season and discusses his vision for the team moving forward.
MLSsoccer.com: The 2010 season ended earlier than you would have liked, but the entire organization can also look forward to a pivotal 2011. As far as progress on the field goes and also just the product in general, how would you evaluate the steps the club has taken this season?
Heineman: We’re disappointed with where we wound up. I think the encouraging signs that we saw post the Manchester United game and the continuity of the team improving were good. But our goal was obviously to make the playoffs and win it, and we didn’t do those things. I feel like we’ve got a decent core, but there are definitely some changes that need to be made.
MLSsoccer.com: With all the changes that you made on the field this offseason, it was probably going to be a little difficult to have the immediate success that you wanted. You look at the teams that are successful in MLS and continuity is huge with both the roster and the coaching staff. How important was it to lay that foundation to get the place you want to be?
Heineman: I think it’s really important. I think it’s one thing that we did a really good job of this year, which is instilling a philosophy. I think we played a pretty definitive style. In some cases, teams knew how we were going to play and took advantage of it to a degree when we were at home.
I think it is important, though, to have laid the foundation so we can go plug in a few piece parts here and there. But I don’t think we want to be complacent and make it seem like we are on track and everything is going great. We know there are things that need to be adjusted, and we need to get better because this is a really important offseason for us.
[inline_node:320631]MLSsoccer.com: It seems like you certainly have some good, young parts to build around in the attacking triumvirate in Teal Bunbury, Ryan Smith and Kei Kamara and Michael Harrington and Roger Espinoza in the back, among others. How important is it to continue to find young players that can contribute at a high level and that you can keep for a longer period of time to grow in your system?
Heineman: There are a bunch of guys that we see could be with the Wizards for five to 10 years. A bunch of those guys have the potential that I could easily see them transferring to Europe at some point in time if that’s in their career path.
There are definitely some places up the middle that we need to make some changes. We need Davy Arnaud to continue to be a strong, veteran leader for us. I think it could make sense for us to go find another veteran to plug in there, someone who has won some championships and had success.
We like our young guys up top, but one of the things we were missing this year is that proven finisher that just pounds the ball in the back of the net on a consistent basis. I think Kei and Teal could become that player, but I also think a veteran to help those guys along is something we are going to look for in the offseason. To a degree, I think Bravo will do that, but there’s one more piece we would like to plug in there.
MLSsoccer.com: Where are the places that you want to shore up?
Heineman: I think in the back. In central defense we had some problems this year. There were a lot of giveaways that sort of cost us games, so I think we want to make sure we have some additional depth in the back. We want to have a little bit more creative option in the midfield, so that’s something we will be looking for. And if we could find a proven goal scorer, that would be something we would look for too. If I were to prioritize those, I would say finding some depth in the back is probably the first place we are going to go look.
[inline_node:315908]MLSsoccer.com: As you look forward with the way this league is growing and see roster expansion being discussed, how much can those things help Kansas City develop depth with both young guys and veterans?
Heineman: I think that’s one of the big transitions that we’ve made year to year. Our depth is much better than it was a year ago. I remember thinking two seasons or so back that there were some times late in games where you would look down the bench to try to see who the attacking option was going to be to come in and change the dynamic of the game. We just frankly didn’t have it.
We’ve built some depth. That’s something we want to continue to do, especially going into next season. Our schedule is going to be a little bit quirky. We’re going to wind up playing a bunch of games at home at the end of the year, and we’ll probably do a lot of three-games-in-a-week type formats. We’re going to need to have that depth. As a coaching staff, I think Peter and the guys are looking for that two-deep depth at a lot of positions, so if things aren’t going the way they want with a guy, they can sit him down, let him watch for a bit and let the guy beneath him and try a little bit.
Depth is going to be important for us, and then harvesting from our youth program is an important thing. Having Jon Kempin on the team is a great thing for us, and I think in the offseason there are one or two more guys from our juniors that we will probably bring forward. We’re finally starting to see some pipeline out of the juniors as well.
MLSsoccer.com: How have things changed in a playing and organizational sense since you and the current ownership group came on board? How would you judge your own progress during that period of time? Are you at where you want to be, or do you see places where you need to be better?
Heineman: I’ll start with the fact that we aren’t winning enough. We want to be competing for trophies and competing in all these different competitions that are available to us. We haven’t done a good job with that. At that layer, we aren’t doing well enough.
As it relates to the vertically integrated structure that we are trying to put in, I think we are doing very well there. The thing that I really like and appreciate about Peter that people probably don’t necessarily see is the way that he is involved at all the levels of our program. You may go out on a Wednesday or Thursday night and see Peter working with our under 16s. I think that’s rare for coaches to take that level of commitment to developing that structure. I think that is coming along, so I feel good about that.
But at the end of the day it’s all going to based on the senior team winning inside the brand new stadium. Right now we aren’t where we need to be.
[inline_node:321627]MLSsoccer.com: It seems like installing the high-pressure style of play has been the overriding focus this season, making sure the guys understand the way the coaching staff wants to play and getting them into the role where they fit the best. What is it about this style of play that you identified with and made it the right way to go forward?
Heineman: It’s a cliché I guess, but we want to play attacking, attractive soccer. There are a lot of teams that say that, but it’s an important thing to us. I think we took a big step forward this year with the high press and the number of shots that we had available to us. We had tons of shots but not enough finishes. We wanted to have a definitive style. We wanted to have people say, “I understand how the Wizards play.”
It’s not going to be week to week or change a whole bunch. We try to be pretty consistent and throw numbers forward with the athletes to do so. I think we are going to use the offseason to get as athletic as possible. Our intention is to stay very focused on being a high-pressure team.
MLSsoccer.com: You look at most of the big club sides internationally and you can pick out their philosophy and the way they want to play. Is establishing that style something that can not only improve the on-the-field product but also give people something to identify with to create an even deeper tie between supporter and club?
Heineman: I hope so. That’s what we are trying to project here in Kansas City — a definitive brand and a definitive style and shape. We want to be known as a team that wins. So far we aren’t there yet, but we’re trying to put it together the right way.
The only analogy I use personally is one of the more successful years we had with the NBA Developmental League team was the year we had a very low-tempo team. We averaged something like 82 points per game, and nobody came to our games. We had one of our best records ever, but nobody showed up. People want to see excitement. Obviously winning is very, very important, but winning pretty is even more important. That something, at least for me personally, that I want to make sure that we have a team that’s attractive to watch.