K.C.: Proving ground for Thomas
While most young players would jump at the chance to leave a last-place club for a playoff team, Shavar Thomas admits that he had mixed emotions when he found out he was traded from the Dallas Burn to the Kansas City Wizards on MLS Draft Day.
"I was thinking that I was one of the guys that Dallas was rebuilding around," said Thomas, who went to K.C. along with the fourth overall draft pick (Matt Taylor) and a conditional pick in 2005 in exchange for the 7th overall pick (Clarence Goodson), defender Carey Talley and midfielder Eric Quill. "I'm a young player and had something to offer them."
The Burn felt strong enough about Thomas to select him with the 10th overall selection in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft as the team's first pick, and play him in 15 of their matches as a rookie.
The club's woeful 6-19-5 record was cause for a much-needed shakeup that resulted in the firing of Mike Jeffries and surprise resignation of Andy Swift before the 2003 season had even come to a close.
Along with the hiring of Colin Clarke as the team's head coach and Greg Elliott as the club's president and general manager came a roster shakeup.
Veterans were brought in, such as Talley, Quill, Rapids goalkeeper Scott Garlick and longtime MetroStars stalwart defender Steve Jolley, and youthful players such as Joselito Vaca, D. J. Countess and Thomas were sent packing.
Thomas looked at Kansas City as being a much more talented side with, as he put it, a "big-time coach" in former U.S. National Team manager Bob Gansler.
He knew he'd learn from veterans like Tony Meola and Kerry Zavagnin, who'd be playing behind and in front of him on the field, but he was concerned with how much time he would see considering that the Wizards were known for playing in a 3-5-2 formation, which called for only one starting centerback.
It was a position held down by Nick Garcia, which seemingly wouldn't change, considering that Garcia is a rising talent, not only within MLS, but within the National Team ranks.
But oddly enough it was the broken leg suffered by Preki during the beginning of the preseason that caused Gansler to move from playing with three in the back to a flat back four zonal system.
Without the league's reigning MVP in the middle of the field as the player the team plays through, he felt that his side needed more width for both attacking and defensive measures.
While Garcia was a strong centerback, Gansler felt he was the team's best left back, so the move was made, opening up the door for Thomas, who started Kansas City's first game of the season next to Jimmy Conrad as the team's central defenders.
Being on the field throughout the preseason and for the season opener has helped Thomas adapt to his new surroundings.
"I'm playing more here, and that's a definite plus," said the 23-year-old from Kingston, Jamaica. "In Dallas, I was in and out. So it's just a better situation. I have to keep proving myself day-in and day-out, but this is my best position. I've always been a centerback."
Skillful for his size at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, Thomas played in a variety of spots last year, and was part of the Burn's unorthodox five-back system that Jeffries used at times during the summer.
Since his team never found its groove, and his playing time only came from June 28 on, Gansler believes this year will be much like a rookie season all over again for Thomas.
He's hoping to get the same potential he saw in Thomas while he starred at the University of Connecticut for two seasons, where his outstanding play drew comparisons to National Team defender Eddie Pope from UCONN head coach Ray Reid.
"We watched him in college, and were very aware of him when he came out," said Gansler, whose team never had a chance to get Thomas since they had traded away their first two selections for Josh Wolff and Conrad. "At the Combine, he was the best defender. He didn't get to play in Dallas early on, so really, he's a rookie. The upside is that he's not just a good athlete, but a very good soccer player. He's got good touch, and he's grown up with the game.
"He's a good talent and we're happy to have him."
Thomas understands what his coach is saying, but he knows he learned too much last year in his first season to call it a wash.
"I wouldn't say it's a rookie year all over again because I know what the league is all about now and what it has to offer as far as the other teams," said Thomas. "The transition from Dallas to Kansas City is definitely a step up. I'm prepared for the challenge, and hopefully I can do great things here."
Garcia, for one, thinks that is possible.
"Shavar was in a tough spot last year being on a team that didn't do well," said the 24-year-old back. "The trade for him was to his advantage, and it was a great move for us. He's a good, young defender, who is equally good on and off the ball. He'll help us."
Conrad likes the offensive element Thomas gives the Wizards on free kicks.
"Somebody has to pay attention to him as well," said Conrad, who had four goals from his offensive prowess off of corner kicks and direct kicks. "So that helps me clear some space and he can create his own opportunities as well."
The team's leadership in the back and strong defensive play helped Kansas City post a shutout against the defending Eastern Conference champion Chicago Fire on Saturday in a 0-0 tie.
It's a partnership that should only get better, considering that Thomas is a new face on the team and because Conrad has spent the majority of his professional career as a right back.
"Each day," said Conrad, "we are going to get better and better as we get to understand each other better."
Thomas is definitely an X-Factor as to how the team survives through the first half of the year, until Preki returns.
His goal is to prove himself enough so that he stays on the field no matter what formation the team switches to or how the personnel changes throughout the season.
It'll not only allow himself to prove people wrong who viewed him as a disappointment last year, but also help to earn a regular spot with the Jamaican National Team for upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
"I wasn't called up for the match against Honduras," said Thomas, who has 12 caps for the Reggae Boyz, and was most recently a starter for the U-23s in their unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the Olympics this summer. "But if I keep playing well, hopefully I'll be in the mix."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.