The Good and the Bad so far
By Tony Felich
The season is still young, but it’s not too early to evaluate how our team is doing. I have been able to watch every minute of every game so far and despite the last five games being relatively disappointing, the team has managed to maintain a 3-3-2 record. I say disappointing because one gets the feel ing the team is underachieving. Despite youth and inexperience, the Wizards seem to have the right pieces; they just need to get them in the right places with cohesion and consistency. They have been guilty of trying to sit on small leads and not playing with consistent intensity at all positions all the time. They have had moments of brilliance for sure, but so far they’re not quite firing on all cylinders. While the long term future of the Wizards is exciting, I’m hoping we’ll start seeing that future be realized this season. I would like to note the good and the bad so far, as I see it.
1. OnGoal Ownership Group. The six principals that make up the OnGoal ownership group have proven to be top notch. There are all sorts of squirrelly owners in professional sports, and generally multiple owners are a challenge to team progress, but it seems OnGoal has a solid authority arrangement and have hired the right people and set the right tone for success since taking over in 2006. In 2005 heading in to 2006 all signs seemed to point toward the Wizards leaving town. Instead, OnGoal stepped in and committed to Kansas City. They deserve much credit for investing in a questionable market. In addition to hiring good soccer people to direct the team, they built a stellar practice facility and have been spearheading the effort to build a soccer specific stadium. In a day where many owners and fans want immediate satisfaction and lack patience regarding progress, OnGoal took up a challenge that would reasonably be 3-5 years from realizing substantial financial fruit. The signing of Claudio Lopez was tangible proof that ownership was not content to stay in a holding pattern until the stadium was complete. I confess to being initially leery of a group ownership situation, but have been forced to recant and rescind my questioning of OnGoal’s commitment. They have earned my utmost respect and support. This ownership group gives a credible reason to look to the future with excitement and anticipation.
2. Vermes and Onalfo. Peter Vermes is relatively new as a “Technical Director” (GM) and so is Curt Onalfo as a coach, however these guys have the right stuff. They are fierce competitors and possess the will to win. They have made several bold personnel moves and have molded the team in to their image over the past several months since the draft. I think the team will eventually be very successful, which unfortunately will mean Vermes and Onalfo will get courted by other clubs here and abroad. I hope they have enough time to see the Wizards through to a championship or three.
3. Claudio Lopez. The signing of Lopez was not only a powerful symbolic gesture on the part of the ownership group; it gave Kansas City much needed national press and created a local buzz. Lopez is past his prime, but he still boasts 58 caps and was a dominant player for Club America as recently as 2005 and 2006. The designated player rule has been tremendous for MLS (just ask L.A., they have three of them), Lopez was a stellar DP pick up for the Wizards. Lopez comes to play hard each game. He carries himself with professionalism and class, there is no doubt his presence alone raises the team’s work ethic and demeanor. On a personal note, I was most impressed that he took time to sign my son’s Racing jersey right after the opening warm-ups before the Houston game. Here’s a guy who is from a place where soccer is king and is used to playing in front of huge crowds where everyone knows and loves him, and is now playing at CAB in a place he has been tasked with winning new fans (at age 34), and he is nice enough to come over and sign my boys jersey. As a long time fan of international soccer, I couldn’t believe I was getting Claudio Lopez’s autograph. He won’t produce like he did in his prime, but he will contribute much, and already has. His value is greater than the tangibles. He will keep things entertaining and interesting for the next couple of years anyways.
4. Young Talent. Despite some disappointing and inconsistent performances by the Wizards in recent games, one cannot help being excited about the near future. The Wizards are way young, especially on defense, yet they’re doing well. They have allowed 10 goals in 8 games. That’s not bad at all for such a young crew. Myers is 21, Harrington and Leathers are 22, and Wahl is 24. That’s young folks. They’re going to be good, scary good. Just wait. In the midfield Espinosa is just 21 and Morsink is 23. The future is bright.
5. Jimmy Conrad. I think Conrad is the most valuable defender in MLS. The main reason Kansas City’s young defensive core has done so well is the leadership of Jimmy Conrad. He is an absolute field general in the center back position. Tyson Wahl is going to get better and better, Conrad is a big reason for this. Added to his defensive exploits are his team-leading three goals, all with his head from the foot of Carlos Marinelli. Conrad’s bright personality only adds to his value.
6. Kevin Hartman. Having shaved off some pounds Hartman may have added 2-3 years to his career. He has three shut outs thus far and came close to stealing a win from NY on Saturday. He seems to stay calm despite having such a young defensive core in front of him, his veteran presence along with Conrad will continue to help the Wizards win games this year.
1. Midfield woes. Very frankly, the Wizards midfield have looked a mess most games. Individual players have shined at various times, but they have failed to jell as a unit so far. The Marinelli groin strain was a huge deterrent to the developing cohesion of the midfield that was starting in the first three games, but no excuse for the overall lack of effectiveness we have seen in the past five games. The midfield has struggled to make good transitions through the middle third of the field. Marinelli is the only midfielder who can consistently carry the ball through the middle third and besides Jewsbury, there are no real scoring threats coming from the midfield. Evidence of the midfield’s lack of effectiveness is the need for Lopez to constantly come back to the Wizards own half to receive the ball. Strikers should be receiving the ball close to the final third of the field, not in their own half. Hopefully the return of Arnaud and Victorine will help, they cannot go far without major improvement in the midfield. The dependence on Marinelli is a bit worrisome also. The Wizards showed some offensive fire power in the first three games, then, since Marinelli was injured and out for a couple games, they have stalled out. It’s not good when your center back is the leading scorer on the team.
2. Rookie errors. While largely promising and exciting to watch, Leathers, Myers, and Espinosa make lots of mistakes and poor decisions. Of this group, only Myers should be starting regularly. Espinosa is sizable defensive liability despite his creative offensive mind. Leathers is a great athlete, but seems to be caught out of position and chasing quite often. The Columbus game was lost because of two rookie errors- Espinosa’s red card and Myers defensive gaff with Hartman that led to the Rogers goal. In the long term the good will outweigh the bad with these guys, but they will make more costly mistakes this year, it’s inevitable.
3. Lack of Creativity with Lopez. Claudio should be used in multiple ways by Onalfo. Claudio is not a speed threat any more, he’s just not. He can still apply a burst and beat a guy, but not consistently. Playing him at striker all the time is a mistake. Lopez should be moved out to the left midfield position at times to utilize his accurate passing. He can’t beat many MLS defenders in a full sprint any more, but he can exploit them running diagonals pretty consistently. Such runs are more natural coming from the midfield. Lopez should be given Blanco-like freedom to play midfield and forward somewhat interchangeably. Putting him up against multiple different opponents will keep a team from marking him and figuring him out. Other than his first goal, I have not seen him effectively run under a long ball. Further, I haven’t seen him beat a defender one on one and take it to the goal either. I think those days are over. He can still beat guys in the midfield and give good serves to his teammates however. I hope he is used more creatively. How about putting him on the left mid position and putting Arnaud and Jewsbury up top? It’s worth a try. Sealy has been a disappointment so far. Trujillo needs more game time.
4. Road trip from hell. The Wizards 2 ½ month road trip consisting of 6 games is cruel and unusual punishment for the team and fans alike. It’s just too long and seems unfair to me. I haven’t looked at the other teams, but I can’t imagine a more difficult road stretch than the Wizards have been on.
5. Turf stinks. I hate the stuff; outdoor soccer shouldn’t be played on it. It looks to me like Lopez hates it too. He’s just not the same on it. The pace of the ball is different on turf. It changes the game. I can’t understand why MLS allows it. What serious league in the world uses it? It’s not the way soccer was meant to be played. Toronto needs to get real grass. Climate should be no excuse, I lived in Buffalo (an hour from Toronto) and it’s totally possible to have quality natural grass fields year round in such places. I hope the league rethinks this. It is much easier for a turf team to transition to natural grass than the other way around.
6. CAB. It’s better than Arrowhead, but not by much (although the food is way better). There are good seats and bad seats, there are no great seats. It’ll work for now, but the new stadium can’t come fast enough.
Overall we in Kansas City have great reason to be pumped about our soccer team. The so-called negatives we have seen this year are basically tied to youth, inexperience, and transition issues, not some systemic or organizational flaw. Buying season tickets was the best decision I have made in 2008, I’m already staking out my specific seats for next year.
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