Now that this past week's festivities/circus that was the friendly against Manchester United is over, I have to admit - I'm so excited about getting back into league play that we're going a day early with preview coverage of this Saturday's home game against Toronto FC.
So, let's skip the pleasantries and talk MLS LEAGUE PLAY SOCCER!!
The Wizards made the trip north of the border back in early June riding a two game losing streak after a 1-0 loss to Columbus at home, followed by a 4-1 trashing at the hands of Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto. This was the part of the season that went completely awry for Kansas City. After wins in their first two league games of the season, six losses and two draws were the recent form heading into BMO Field. In what could quite possibly be considered the worst spectacle MLS game of the season, the Wizards managed a 0-0 draw for a rare road point. Nothing more need be said about that game.
Since that game all the way back on June 5, KC has managed 7 points in six league games. That sounds bad, and it is. We know how much this team has struggled. Somehow, though, Toronto has been just as bad. How are they sitting on 23 points and the final playoff spot at the moment, you ask? Well, their hot start has kept them afloat during their struggles since June 5, picking up 7 points in five games.
|All Games Played Since June 5
|W, 2-0 vs PHI
|D, 0-0 vs LAG
|L, 0-3 vs NYRB
|D, 1-1 vs HOU
|L, 0-1 @ FCD
|W, 1-0 vs COL
|L, 0-2 vs CHV
|L, 2-1 @ PHI
|W, 1-0 @ CLM
|D, 1-1 vs Bolton*
|D, 1-1 @ COL
|D, 1-1 vs FCD
|W, 2-1 vs ManU*
1. Will coach Peter Vermes stick with the recipe of success from recent results?
Much like when this same question was asked leading up to the Colorado game, much of the Wizards' chances in this game will rely upon the answer to that question. We've seen how stubborn Vermes can be at times this year with starting XI selections. I was less than hopeful he would go against his better judgment and continue with the same sort of lineup he used against Columbus. He proved me very wrong, and the Colorado game went off rather well - a draw that could have been another win.
Much of this issue pertains to Teal Bunbury's inclusion in the starting XI. One would think that after three straight games starting Bunbury three straight games, and seeing the team scoring in all three, (the second time all season they've scored at least once in three straight games - league games number one and two, along with the US Open Cup loss to Colorado being the other) Vermes would be wise enough to not fix something that's not broken. Bunbury starts this game, and we should score a goal at one point or another.
In my opinion, while Bunbury, Kei Kamara and Ryan Smith were at their very best on Sunday against United, the game was won by the KC midfield. Of all the 50/50 balls in the center third of the field, it felt like the players in blue were getting about 75 percent of them; even the ones that were clearly possessed by United, but wanted more by a Wizard. Whether it was Craig Rocastle, (three solid games in a row) Stephane Auvray, or even the captain Davy Arnaud, balls were won and taken back all over the midfield, giving the Wizards a much higher possession rate before the sending off of Jimmy Conrad. Another performance like that against TFC, and they'll have no more than a handful of real chances on goal.
2. Are the leaders leading?
Perhaps the strangest, while also maybe the most encouraging, thing about this recent run of form is that the players being credited with much of the success - Bunbury, Kamara, Smith, Rocastle, Auvray and Nielsen - are, for the most part, not the ones that were expected to lead heading into the season.
That can be read as a bad thing, yes. But, think that the average age of the players playing above average the last couple weeks (the six listed, plus Michael Harrington and Roger Espinoza) is 25.4 years old, the foundation for the future looks nearly set. This isn't an aging team with a rapidly closing window for success. They're built for the future and could, with any luck, be a top tier MLS side for the next few years. If all it cost us was a couple months of dreadful play, that's a trade many-a-Wizards supporter is willing to make.
Think of where the team could be if stalwarts Jimmy Conrad, Arnaud, Josh Wolff and Jack Jewsbury had been performing up to expectations this year.
3. Has this team finally jelled and begun to show its potentially large sum of a lot of great parts?
I've maintained throughout the struggles of this season that there is entirely too much talented, and too many quality MLS players on this team to not be a top half of the table team. Early on in the season, the reasoning had to lie in having so many new players and not being in sync with one another. After a month or two of struggling, blame fell squarely on Vermes. Glimpses of potential were seen here and there, but not given adequate chance to shine.
Turn the clock ahead to today, and with both adequate time given to play with one another enough and the proper players playing, there's good times ahead. The attacking line looks dangerous as ever, and now a pending addition of a Designated Player at the forward position looks almost something that could derail present success.
At present time, even the backline and the ever-revolving center of defense seems a bit stable. I'd still rather Shavar Thomas not be asked to play 90 minutes game in and game out. His fitness is not on such a level to do so.
In a short answer to the question, while this squad still has much room to grow, yes, they are a far cry from the Wizards of April and May... and, June. I'm excited at the prospects of this team's potential in the more immediate future. Is it unfounded, or are you right there with me?