Wizards aim to avoid rebuilding year
2009 record and finish: 8-13-9, 33 points. Sixth place in Eastern Conference, missed playoffs.
Key additions: GK Jimmy Nielsen, D Pablo Escobar, D Korede Aiyegbusi, M Stephane Auvray, F Teal Bunbury, F Kei Kamara
Key losses: GK Kevin Hartman, M Kurt Morsink, M Herculez Gomez, F Claudio Lopez
1. What changes will Peter Vermes make?
Since winning the franchise's only MLS Cup in 2000, the Wizards seem to have been stuck in neutral. Over the past nine seasons, they've made the playoffs six times, including advancing to the title game in 2004, but the team has never again looked like the club that lifted the trophy in 2000.
Late last season, the Wizards fired head coach Curt Onalfo, and he was replaced by general manager Vermes. A former national team stalwart in the early '90s, Vermes was one of the first players signed by MLS, and he understands the league from both a player and management perspective. Vermes was a winner, and he expects the same passion for the game in his team.
The defense doesn't appear to be an issue, with Jimmy Conrad anchoring a back line that should improve on last year and has some good young depth. Priority No. 1 for Vermes, however, is to add some zest to a Wizards attack that last year was tied for second-worst in the league.
2. Which brings us to ...
An offense that found the back of the net just 33 times last year, this despite a career-best 11 goals by forward Josh Wolff. Kansas City should have an improved defense this year, but it must generate some offense or else risk missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Wolff always seems to be a bit of a question mark, even during his prime when he was a regular with the national team. The 33-year-old has often been hampered by injuries throughout his career, but he seemed relatively healthy last year in making 27 starts and being among Kansas City's leaders in minutes played.
Joining Wolff up top will most likely be Kei Kamara, an exciting young forward who is smooth on the dribble and has national team experience for his native Sierra Leone. Kamara must improve on finishing; the creative forward wastes far too many chances. And he must work on making better and faster decisions. If not, rookie Teal Bunbury, whose father, Alex, played for Kansas City in 1999 and 2000, seems poised to make an early impact for the team.
Wolff and Kamara have the potential to be among the most dynamic strike duos in the league, but they will need a solid and fluid midfield to get them the ball. The attacking unit has lost Herculez Gomez to Mexico and former Argentine international Claudio Lopez, two of the lone creative sparks on the team.
The team does return Davy Arnaud -- perhaps the most underappreciated player in the league -- who brings a high work-rate and a deft touch along with some international experience. Maybe the biggest signing of the offseason for the team, Stephane Auvray will be counted on by Vermes & Co. to bring some possession and skill to the midfield. A regular on the Guadalupe national team, Auvray should be penciled in as a holding midfielder for Kansas City and has impressed the Wizards management. His experience playing club ball in France should help a Wizards midfield that struggled at times last year with composure issues.
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3. Is this year a rebuilding year?
The answer from Vermes and team management is a resounding "no," and the Wizards think they have a team that can compete right now. Outside of Chicago and Columbus at the top, the Eastern Conference is wide open, meaning that the Wizards could be primed for a run at the playoffs.
It'd be easy to chalk up this year as one to develop the roster -- 2010 is sandwiched between a year when the team missed the playoffs and of course next year, when the Wizards move into their own stadium. Vermes feels that the team has improved defensively and that with the addition of another wide player to the midfield the squad will be able to compete and is vastly improved.
Biggest X Factor: Jimmy Nielsen
Quiet rumbles from preseason training have Wizards management saying that Nielsen might in fact be better than former goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, one of the best to ever don a pair of gloves in this league. A veteran of the Danish league, Nielsen has plenty of experience, including having tended goal in the Champions League.
He's a strong player who controls the box well and is known for organizing the defense. The Wizards claimed the MLS Cup in 2000 with a stingy defense -- former national team keeper Tony Meola was stellar in goal -- and Danish forward Miklos Molnar up top provided the goals. While the Wizards hope that this Dane will be great at stopping shots, the mood out of Wizards camp is that Nielsen will help tighten the back line and bring a soothing presence to a group that looked haggard at times last year.
Breakout player to watch: Kei Kamara
Entering his fourth year in the league, it may seem odd that Kamara would be poised to break out. Blessed with as much talent as any attacker in the league, Kamara benefited greatly from a fluid and balanced Houston Dynamo attack throughout the early stages of his career. Now in Kansas City, Kamara will have to shoulder a greater load with his new team to turn an anemic offense into a dangerous one.
Kamara has speed to burn and is creative in the final third but needs to show more maturity on and off the ball. The margin of error for the Wizards will be high as the midfield continues to take shape and gel. There is no reason that strike partner Josh Wolff and Kamara can't combine well and consistently, stretching defenses with their speed and movement. If Kamara can live up to his potential and net 10 goals this season, the Wizards could be well on their way to returning to the playoffs.
Kansas City seems to have the taste of 2009, a year that saw the Wizards fall from playoff contention, finally out of their mouths. This is not a bad team, and any club coached by Vermes is sure to be gritty and fiery.
There are holes to fill in the midfield, but there is also versatility with rising players such as Jack Jewsbury and Honduran international Roger Espinoza firmly in the mix.
Despite the new faces and the exciting young talent, this is still very much Jimmy Conrad's team. A character on and off the field, Conrad is the presence whom this team turns to when it is in need of its backbone. How the team adjusts if and when Conrad gets called up to the national team for the World Cup will be vital for any postseason hopes that Vermes' team might have.
The Wizards will be a hardworking team -- maybe the hardest in the league -- and they will overcome any talent deficiencies with work rate. It may be a stretch to say that Kansas City is a dark horse to contend for the MLS Cup, but there is no reason to believe that the Wizards can't return to the playoffs.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com .