Seven points from three league games. I'm not going to beat around the bushes with some long-winded lead-in to my three questions for Saturday's home game against Real Salt Lake. This team is on a hot damn roll and we owe this Salt Lake side a little consideration of payback for the 4-1 thrashing they put on our Wizards back on May 29 in Utah.
This team is full-steam ahead, so I'll be the same. They are, after all, going to the playoffs this year.
1. What will the different effect of having both starting full backs against RSL make compared to the first matchup?
Where the game at Rio Tinto was lost was on the wide part of the right side of Kansas City defense. If you think back, Roger Espinoza left the team in the previous week and a half leading up to that game to train with the Honduran national team before the World Cup. Subsequently, regular right back Michael Harrington was shifted from right to Espinoza's spot on the left and started in Harrington's spot on the right.
Not only did the Wizards lose Espinoza's great skill and defending on the left, (Harrington is more than capable of playing either side) but Harrington is, in my mind, an elite level MLS right back. When you have to shift his position, a gaping hole is left for exploitation. And, exploit that weakness RSL did. Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola ran loosely down the right side of the KC defense and each scored first half goals. Poor Jonathon Leathers, put in an impossible position, was left hung to dry for 90 minutes. Perhaps leaving Harrington on the right to play the speedy pair would have been better, but that's months ago and water under the bridge. April, May and June weren't exactly head coach Peter Vermes' claim to genius.
Fast forward to August 7, and the full compliment of Harrington and Espinoza will be in the starting XI. What exactly does that do for KC's chances Saturday? To put it frankly, a hell of a lot. At ages 24 and 23, respectively, the fullback duo of Harrington and Espinoza have to be considered an elite MLS pairing and a real gleam of hope for the future.
As for this game, if Espindola and/or Saborio have games anywhere near the first matchup against the regular duo, not to mention the smaller CommunityAmerica Ballpark field, I'll be shocked and fully accept the blame for jinxing the team.
2. Does Craig Rocastle have another overachieving performance in him?
Over the span of the last four games in all competitions, Rocastle has unquestionably the most surprising player in the Wizards squad. He was less than awful the first half of the season - much like the entire team as a whole - in picking up nearly a yellow card per appearance. Over time, though, Rocastle has caught the eye of Vermes, won himself a starting XI spot against Columbus, performed admirably, started against Colorado, repeat cycle twice over.
Much of his improved play can probably be attributed to the return to lineup and health of holding midfielder Stephane Auvray. When Auvray missed near all of May and June, the squad was left without a true holding center midfielder. Rocastle was given a chance to fill the role, but he's not a true holding mid. As the chief winner and distributor of the ball, he struggled mightily and often found himself in risky situations, which often spelled trouble for the Kansas City defense.
However, with the return of Auvray, Down The Byline's Player of the Month for July, Rocastle is free to play more of a "roamer" role, allowing him to play from box to box and sideline to sideline, rather than strictly in the center of the field. Results have been near stellar. Rocastle played a beautiful ball to Davy Arnaud for a goal against Colorado and has often found himself in the middle of many attacks into the opponent's final third. His combination of size and aggressive play make him and ideal ball winner.
When it comes to RSL, Rocastle will need to be a key player once again. Along side Auvray, they will be charged with the task of halting the creative force in the middle that is Kyle Beckerman. If there were a time at all this year when Salt Lake struggled, it was during Beckerman's extended injury period. Kyle Beckerman is so good that he can miss more than half the season, yet still make the All-Star roster. That's something. (Or, at least that's what MLS will have you to believe. The All-Star voting isn't a joke at all.)
3. What is the status of Wizards winger Ryan Smith for Saturday's game?
Perhaps more than any one player on the Wizards roster, Smith can create duck stew out of pigeon crap and create goal-scoring opportuinties out of nothing with a sudden darting run inside. And, for that reason, it goes without saying that could do for having a healthy Smith in the gameday 18, whether it be in the starting XI, or on the bench.
As far as status on Smith's injury, the only mention since the Toronto game is this line from the kcwizards.com postgame article:
Kansas City was dealt a blow in the 56th minute when left winger Ryan Smith pulled up lame as he grabbed at his right hamstring. He was removed for Wolff two minutes later with a hamstring strain.
As of this moment, there's no new, real news of yet. Expect to hear something official come Thrusday afternoon at the weekly press conference. Check back with either Down The Byline, or The Back Post later in the afternoon. The potential of not having Smith in the lineup for such a crucial game against such a worthy opponent can't be overstated. If Smith is unable to go Saturday, Vermes might be forced to go back to Josh Wolff in the starting XI. That strategy didn't exactly work like a charm the first half of the season. Is it too late to hold Sunil Chhetri back from joining the Indian national team? No, I'm totally not kidding...