The Full 90

The Wizards at Halfway, Part 1: Cracks in the Foundation

Let’s do the time warp everyone. The date is April 24. It’s a cold and wet evening at CommunityAmerica Ballpark. The best teams (at the time) in Major League Soccer had just finished up a tightly-fought scoreless draw. Kansas City held the statistical edge over the Los Angeles Galaxy in terms of possession and scoring chances (remember, this was the Kei Kamara “miss of the century” night) and seemed on the verge of ascending to the top of the MLS table.

Flash forward to May 29. Real Salt Lake, the defending MLS champion, has just finished mopping the floor with an MLS has-been, delighting their teeming fans with four goals. In Kansas City, fans start to see reality: The entire month of May has elapsed and the team managed to pick up only 1 point. The top of the table is disappearing as the team descends into the dark and murky waters of irrelevance.

In that 35-day span, everything changed for the worse for the Kansas City Wizards. But where did it all go wrong? And, more importantly, have they figured out the way forward and repaired the cracks in their foundation?

As we sit at the halfway point of the MLS season, let’s take a look at what worked and the obviously bigger issue of what hasn’t worked. Today we will deal exclusively with the one aspect of the team that head coach and technical director Peter Vermes has made a few moves to correct: The Defense.
I. A Very Good Start

At the beginning of the season, the Wizards talked about changes in culture. (And fitness, they talked about fitness a lot.) Gone were Claudio Lopez, Herculez Gomez, Kurt Morsink, Adam Cristman and Kevin Hartman. Stepping in to the breach were Stephane Auvray, Pablo Escobar, Ryan Smith, Craig Rocastle and Jimmy Nielsen.

Right out of the gate, the culture did seem to change. A new formation was installed (a more modern 4-3-3) and a new style of play came with it (a high-pressure system that a colleague at The Star dubbed “90 Minutes of Hell"). The team squashed former coach Curt Onalfo and D.C. United 4-0, then rolled off two more shutouts against Colorado and Los Angeles with the only smudge on the record a last-second slip-up on the road to Seattle.

It was not out of place for fans to have been over-confident at this point.

I talked last week to assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin after the Colorado Rapids game and we discussed building a foundation for the team, not just for this season, but for moving forward as a franchise. And that this foundation would be more than just a style of play, it would be an attitude and culture shift.

But it’s hard to build a strong foundation when cracks start emerging before the concrete is set.

II. The Truth About Soft Goals and What Causes Them

It’s somewhere between April 24 and May 29 that the biggest crack became evident: The defense coudn’t handle the pressure. During that five-game stretch, the team allowed seven “soft” goals.*

*For the sake of our conversation, I’m defining “soft” as a goal that came directly from a misplayed ball or a complete and total defensive lapse. And the first “soft” goal of the year was the game-winner in Seattle.

Not surprisingly, Pablo Escobar, who was on the field for the first three of those five games, is no longer with the team. Believed by many (me included) to be the future of the team’s central defense in part because of his athleticism and speed, Escobar failed the most basic principle of defending. He couldn’t communicate.

“He never attempted to learn English,” Jimmy Conrad told The Star in July. “There were times he could communicate ... he would tell me when there was a guy coming. But in the heat of the moment, when the ball is 18 yards away from the goal and we need to make a split decision, I’m not processing Spanish and he’s not processing English.”

While there is much to fault when it comes to Esocbar -- his reading of the game was poor -- it overlooks the fault of some other players too. Matt Besler hasn’t shown the team he is strong enough to hold his position in this league yet, Aaron Hohlbein errors led directly to two goals against New York and Conrad has at times looked a little more disorganized than many fans are used to seeing.

Blame for the slump can also be traced back to the loss of Roger Espinoza to the World Cup and defensive midfielder Stephane Auvray missing two months with knee surgery. But those are both just excuses. There were more fundamental changes that needed to happen.

III. Moving Forward in the Back

Shavar Thomas, a Jamaican international and former Wizard, brings a bunch of things to the table. He’s strong, experienced and, most importantly, settled.*

*The fact that him and Jimmy Conrad are friends can’t hurt things either.

Vermes traded two future second-round picks to Philadelphia to bring Thomas back, and it would appear the team seems happy with the Thomas-Conrad partnership. After an initial rough spot (in their first game together, Chivas scored two goals off misplayed passes between the two), the team has settled down and picked up a win on the road against Columbus, salvaged a road tie with Colorado and shocked Manchester United in a friendly on Sunday.

But this doesn’t mean the Wizards aren’t going to keep looking to solidify the back four.

“We’re always looking. It’s never a finished product. No matter what, there’s always someone out there that winds up being an upgrade from what you have,” Vermes said.

He really meant it. When we were having this conversation, he was taking phone calls to finalize the details of the deal to bring Nikos "Nick" Kounenakis to the team.

"[Kounenakis] is an experienced guy, for sure. The great thing about him is he speaks English, almost perfectly. Especially in the back, it's hard when the foreign players don't speak English," said Vermes. "We needed somebody with experience, not somebody who would be a project."

It’s worth noting that every defender for the Wizards right now speaks fluent English.

Up next: The pressure is back... not surprisingly, so are results.