Wholesale changes weren't needed for the Wizards
When a team fails to make the MLS playoffs, the impulse -- not to mention the demand of most fans -- is to call in the demolition experts, blow the whole enterprise up, and start over. For three of last year's non-playoff teams, that inclination became reality, as Columbus, Chivas USA, and Real Salt Lake all underwent a considerable overhaul. Not so in Kansas City, and even though the current regular season is still in its infancy, the decision appears to have paid off for the Wizards, who with a 3-0-0 record are off to the best start in their history.
That the Wizards found themselves excluded from the MLS postseason was one of the more surprising developments of 2005. Although forced to move into the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference, Kansas City appeared to be on solid footing after a four-game winning streak last August. But they failed to win any of their last eight games, and the Wizards were edged out for the last playoff spot by a resurgent MetroStars outfit.
Yet rather than make wholesale changes, the brain trust of General Manager Curt Johnson and head coach Bob Gansler decided that what was needed was a few key additions combined with a little selective amnesia. After all, the team was only one season removed from an appearance in the MLS Cup Final.
"There was never a thought in my mind to [blow it up]," says Johnson. "Although last year, the way we performed down the stretch was not what we wanted to do, it wasn't enough of a reason to scrap everything we had done in the last 2-1/2 years, because there was a lot of good stuff during that time. We had to acknowledge that we had some problems, but we also had a lot of bright spots."
Those problems included an inability to hold onto leads, as well as finish teams off when they had the chance. Case in point was a game in September of last year against the MetroStars that saw the Wizards twice squander one-goal leads.
The development left Johnson pining for more "difference makers," and the team certainly got one on February 14 when they acquired disgruntled F.C. Dallas forward Eddie Johnson (no relation) for a pair of allocations. While Johnson the player has only scored a solitary goal so far, the U.S. international has contributed in other ways, especially with regard to his holdup play. His mere presence on the field has had an impact as well.
"[Johnson] could just be standing there and a team would be worried about him," says Wizards' captain Jimmy Conrad. "He has that kind of ability. You have to worry about [Wolff] and [Arnaud] as well, but adding him with the two other guys, you have to keep four, maybe five guys back on defense. And that helps us keep the pressure on the other team."
The addition of Johnson has also mitigated the fact that Kansas City lacks a bona-fide playmaker, which was thought to be a significant hole in preseason. While Wolff remains the offensive catalyst for his side, the Wizards' 4-3-3 formation has seen the creative burden spread out more evenly, which has added an unconventional element to their offense.
"We don't want those guys to be predictable about where they are playing," says midfielder Sasha Victorine about his front line. "We want them to be all over the place. We want them to make the other teams figure out 'What are these guys doing?'"
That was precisely the case in last weekend's 1-0 win against New England. Arnaud started out on the left wing, but later popped up on the right. Sometimes Johnson would drop back into midfield, and at other times, it was Wolff. This created all kinds of confusion in the Revolution defense, and it took the visitors almost the entire first half to sort things out. Only some stellar goalkeeping from Matt Reis kept the match from being a runaway.
Yet for all of the Wizards' options in attack, a recommitment to defense has been just as important to their early season success. It's a trait that has long been synonymous with Gansler-coached teams, so much so that the Wizards' head coach has often been referred to as "Bunker Bob." Yet last year, Kansas City experienced some uncharacteristic breakdowns that Conrad attributes to a lack of concentration and a touch of overconfidence.
"We've been so good for so long defensively," says Conrad. "We had a lot of leads at home last year, and we thought 'We've got it.' It's like we let our guard down, and we didn't do the necessary things."
That the Wizards closed out the Revs, and earned a clean sheet in the process, bodes well for 2006. Yet some considerable land mines remain. The World Cup looks set to claim both Johnson and Wolff, and while the likes of Scott Sealy (if he isn't picked by Trinidad & Tobago), Ryan Pore, and Yura Movsisyan are poised to pick up the slack, it's a group that is short on experience. There is also no guarantee against a letdown after Wolff and Johnson return. And although Johnson has been a model citizen so far, the rumored petulant behavior that saw him run out of Dallas could always reemerge, especially if offers from Europe come pouring in. Gansler indicates that he's counting on his veteran players to see the team through.
"We've got guys on this team who don't take a back seat to anybody in Nick Garcia, Sasha Victorine, and Jose Burciaga," says Gansler. "It's not a one-man leadership here or a two-man or even the four guys who are on the national team. And for the first three or four months of this year, our best players have not been our national team players because they haven't been around. It's been our pillars. Sasha has been one of them, and Nick and Jose have been the other two."
Off the field, the Wizards find themselves coping with another year of uncertainty surrounding their future home. Although plenty of progress has been made on the stadium front, with three cities in Johnson County all vying for the right to have a soccer-specific venue built in their town, there is a long way to go. Not-so-small items like funding sources have yet to be ironed out, and with voters approving renovations to Arrowhead Stadium, the Wizards may find themselves without a home for next season.
But while familiarity often breeds contempt, in this case it has bred acceptance, which according to Conrad, has allowed the team to compartmentalize any concerns about the team's future. The players know there is nothing they can do about the situation.
"Last year, it wasn't so much about how we played," says Conrad. "The first question we always got was 'So what's going to happen?' That was something that was at us, everyday, all the time. This year it's a little bit different. We've accepted the fact that nobody knows. We have a year of experience with it, and it really doesn't bother us anymore."
This approach should allow the team to limit their focus to on-field matters, which so far have been near perfect. And if this trend continues, a return to the playoffs seems likely, meaning there won't be any need for demolition experts in Kansas City for quite a while.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com