[MLS TEAM PREVIEWS] Reaching the playoffs for the first time in three seasons in 2007 masked these sobering facts: Kansas City stumbled down the stretch - losing three of four before beating Dallas in the season finale -- and edged into the playoffs as the eighth overall seed with a 11-12-7 record. Of the playoff octet, it tied with the New York Red Bulls for the most goals conceded: 45.
Traded away were defenders Jose Burciaga Jr. (Colorado) and Nick Garcia (San Jose), mainstays of the team and solid enough players yet still prone to costly errors despite their experience. Though just about everybody else is back, Kansas City will probably look much different, especially in the back.
After trading Garcia for that No. 1 overall pick, head coach Curt Onalfo used it on UCLA product Chance Myers, who might play right mid instead of the right back (UCLA) or left back (U.S. under-23s) positions he's filled recently. Onalfo is experimenting with a 3-5-2 formation to better highlight the playmaking skills of Argentine Carlos Marinelli and possibly a few other flair players: returnee Eloy Colombano, draft pick Roger Espinoza (Ohio State), and incoming striker Ivan Trujillo.
"Roger is very creative and loves to go at people," says Kansas City technical director Peter Vermes, who has accompanied Onalfo on several scouting trips. "He's a very good passer of the ball and a good dribbler. What a lot of people don't pay attention to is that he's actually a pretty darn good defender. He's also a great kid. We interviewed him and we really, really like his personality."
While he was an assistant coach with the U.S. under-20 team, Vermes worked with Myers, who spent the first month of 2008 training with the under-23s. Some observers are projecting Myers to fall far short of Marvell Wynne (2006) and Maurice Edu (2007) as successful No. 1 picks, and see him more in the mold of bust Steve Shak (2000). Vermes disagrees.
"This year we were looking for wide play, because it's so important in this league to have that," says Vermes. "Chance is an attacking guy. It's our feeling in a 4-4-2 he can play as right defender or right midfield, and in a 3-5-2 he can play out wide."
In Myers' favor is the Wizards' recent record with young players. Rookies flourished last year: Michael Harrington and Kurt Morsink, combined, played 50 matches.
Onalfo addressed his defensive issues in the second round by taking size and speed in Cameroon 6-foot-4 Yomby Williamand Jonathan Leathers, respectively, but says returnees Tyson Wahl and Aaron Hohlbein get first crack at starting spots. Michael Harrington, one of last year's top rookies who played mostly left back in Kansas City's 4-4-2, can play on the left side of a three-man back line or in midfield. Veteran Jimmy Conrad will man the middle but the right side is wide open, and Conrad will miss several games playing for the U.S.
In the supplemental draft the Wizards used one of their four picks on Towson State central midfielder Pat Healey. He may be groomed to replace former U.S. international Kerry Zavagnin, who turns 33 this year and is likely to be paired in the middle with Morsink to support Marinelli. Second-round supplemental pick Vicente Arze, a midfielder from Mercer University, hails from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, from which several players have progressed to MLS.
Vermes acknowledges he and Onalfo might have passed up more talented players to make their picks, and didn't directly address the loss ofEddie Johnson (15 goals last year) to Fulham, or the off-season surgery that will sideline Davy Arnaud (four goals, nine assists) for the first part of the season. So be it. There is a plan at work.
"From our perspective, we're not trying to collect talent, we're trying to build a team," says Vermes. "We don't want to be team that takes all the best talent in the draft and then wonders how to put all the pieces together. We're trying to find what's important for our team, not just today, or this season, but we're thinking next year and three years from now."
MLS Preseason Previews
Jan. 28 -- Real Salt Lake
Jan. 29 -- D.C. United
Jan. 30 -- New England
Jan. 31 -- Columbus
Feb. 1 -- FC Dallas
Feb. 4 -- Chicago