Toronto FC heads into a very important away fixture on Wednesday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. At a minimum, TFC need to gain some momentum heading into their home debut on Saturday against the same Wizards team. Keeping meaningful possession over the course of the match, having some control over the run of play, and of course scoring a goal or two will help lift the spirits of all involved.
After the last game, I felt Mo unfairly criticized his defenders in the media. It was well known Mo was a supporter of the 3-5-2 formation from his days in New York. The formation proved to be ill suited for a back line that is unfamiliar with each other, and included inexperienced players such as Boyens and Brennan. It was a total collapse, not just a problem with the defenders. From the forwards straight through the backline, Toronto was not prepared for the Revs. They were outplayed, outsmarted, outclassed.
Mo has decided to do a total reversal with regard to the system of play. A system he has preferred, and used basically all pre-season. Mo has said Toronto FC will move to a new system of play tonight. Was it a entirely a coaching decision? Or were the players also involved in asking for a change? Mo said last week the system will resemble a 4-4-2 on Wednesday, and a possible 4-5-1 when Danny Dichio becomes available. Long time MLS supporters will remember Bob Gansler riding the 4-5-1 formation to an MLS Cup Championship in 2000 with Mikos Molnar serving up top as the lone striker.
THE GAME: Wednesday is the home opener for the Wizards. The game also marks the return of both Mo Johsnton and Bob Gansler to Kansas City. The Toronto coaches spent many years together in Kansas City, winning the 2000 MLS Cup Championship with the Wizards in the process. Gansler served as the head Coach of Kansas City after taking over from Englishman Ron Newman in 1999, while Johnston an original 1996 Allocation, was a mainstay in the Wizards midfield during the MLS's formative years. The match will be a reunion of sorts. Current KC Assistant Coach Chris Henderson, and Technical Director Peter Vermes were also part of the aforementioned 2000 MLS Cup Champions while Wizard players Nick Garcia and Kerry Zavagnin remain from the Championship season.
The Wizards were recently sold by the late Lamar Hunt, to a group of ambitious local investors, who are working towards building a Soccer Specific Stadium complex for the team. After many years of poor attendance at the cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, and constant rumours that the team would be relocated to another market, things are starting to look up for the Wizards on the business side. That said, a referendum on publicly funded soccer park/stadium was voted down overwhelmingly by residents last winter. With Arrowhead Stadium scheduled for a major renovation it was unknown where the Wizards would play the 2007 season. An agreement to remain at Arrowhead was finally reached early this year. The Wizards are the professional team where former Canadian International legend and Toronto Blizzard player Alex Bunbury ended his playing days.
On the field, Kansas City is a team that has not made the playoffs each of the last two seasons. I would suggest the Wizards became a stale and predictable side under Bob Gansler. His long tenure as head coach ended when he was dismissed midway through the 2006 season. His replacement, former assistant coach Brian Bliss was not offered a contract in the off season. The Wizards hired former MLS player and US National team assistant coach Curt Onalfo to lead the team into a new era. On the player front, the Wizards lost US National Team forward Josh Wolff to 1860 Munich in Germany, as well as Dutch midfielder Dave Van den Bergh to New York.
LAST MATCH: Kansas City head into the home and away series with TFC after losing two straight. The first loss was a 2-1 US Open Cup defeat to Real Salt Lake, which eliminated the Wizards from further contention in Cup play. The second loss, was to the Chicago Fire in MLS action on the weekend. The Wizards scored an impressive 4-2 win over DC Untied in their season opener April 14th.
COACHES: Curt Onalfo is in his first year as an MLS Head Coach. Onalfo a former US Olympian, served as an assistant to Bruce Arena at the World Cup in Germany. He played several seasons in MLS before joining the coaching ranks. Onalfo has hired recently retired MLS player Chris Henderson, and former MLSer Kris Kelderman as assistant coaches. Technical Director Peter Vermes, a former Wizard player himself under Gansler, has vowed that the Wizards will replace Gansler's defensive minded, negative tactics, and introduce a new more entertaining style of soccer this season.
KEEPER: An off-season trade has brought one of the best goalkeepers in MLS history, Kevin Hartman to the Wizards. One of the longest serving Los Anglees Galaxy players, Hartman's record speaks for itself. Hartman's long run in LA ended when LA Galaxy coach Frank Yallop decided to make a move for Joe Cannon, in the off season.
DEFENDERS: The Wizards have a solid core of quality defenders. Nick Garcia, Jimmy Conrad, Jose Burciaga are amongst the best in the league. I've always rated Nick Garcia highly. A mainstay on the defense since the 2000 season when the Wizards were crowned MLS Champions, he is a fierce and smart competitor that brings his all each night. He unfortunately never made the jump to become a regular for the US National team as I always thought he would. Still there aren't many defenders better then him in the league in my estimation. Jimmy Conrad on the other hand has become a regular on the US National team, including a place in Germany last summer. Conrad has developed nicely into a consistent and reliable defender. Jose Burciaga has developed into a quality MLS player and should also get his chance at the US national team in the near future. Rookie first round draft pick, Michael Harrington (who can also play in the midfield), could be a candidate for Rookie of the Year honours if his solid play keeps up. Harrington has already turned heads with his play in pre-season and the first two matches of the season.
MIDFIELDERS: Kansas City acquired 25 year old Carlos Marinelli from Argentina during the off season. Marinelli who grew up in the Boca Juniors system, made a $4 million move to Middlesboro in the late 1990's. After playing more than 50 games in the EPL, and spending time in Seria A with Torino, his signing could be one of the best of the off-season in my opinion. Kerry Zavagnin is one of the longest serving Wizards; he remains from the Mo Johsnton days. Zavagnin was a US national team mainstay leading to Germany, and is a solid two way MLS midfielder. Sasha Victorine is yet another threat in the midfield, fully capable of leading the team. He was a key player in the Wizards season opening win in DC. Davy Arnaud is another player to keep an eye on, especially if he matches up against Andy Welsh, and Welsh puts in another terrible performance defensively.
STRIKERS: The highly rated US International Eddie Johnson came out flying in the season opener against DC United scoring one, and being involved on all 4 goals scored. Johnson's career has sputtered somewhat. He became a hot commodity in the run to Germany, and was rewarded as one of the most expensive players in MLS. Injuries, and concerns over attitude and behaviour however, have clouded his future prospects. After being traded by FC Dallas, he had an altogether sub-par 2006. The other threat up top is Trinidadian International Scott Sealy who looked good against DC in the season opener (some concerns over a foot injury may keep him out of action though). If Marinelli pans out in midfield, Sealy and Johnson will surely reap the rewards of playing in front of him.
OUTLOOK: On paper Kansas City is not one of the MLS glamour teams. Tomorrow will tell us more about the quality of Kansas City Wizards 2007 prospects, then it will Toronto's. If they struggle against TFC the impressive season opening win against DC United will be looked at as nothing more than a one off victory. Toronto has to leave a better impression on Wednesday night. While I don't expect them to win, they have to show improvement.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Wednesday will show us if Marinelli and Johnson are for real (granted Marinelli has to be in the lineup). The setting for them to impress won't get any better than against an expansion side still looking to find themselves. The contributions of Jose Burciaga Jr., from the back is also something to keep an eye on. I will be watching Rookie Michael Harrington who can play either at the back or in midfield, he may very well be the best player out of the 2007 Superdraft.
KEYS FOR TORONTO: If Marinelli is as good as many are suggesting, he could be the best off -season signing in MLS given his age. Depending on how much he plays Wednesday night, limiting his influence over the midfield will be critical for Toronto. Eddie Johnson will finish opportunities if given the service by Marinelli, or anyone else for that matter, so closing him down has to be a top priority. Getting through the Wizards back line won't be easy, the Toronto forwards will need to capitalize on any chances they get.
PREDICTION: Kansas City 2-Toronto 0
The BMO doors open at 7:00 tomorrow for the Season Ticket holder Open House at BMO Field. Be sure to bring a blanket if you intend to stay for the entire KC game as I would expect temperatures to be much cooler by the lake, especially after dark. Should be great!