Prior to the start of the 2007 MLS season, it's likely that a game between the Kansas City Wizards and the New England Revolution was one that fans would have easily overlooked. The two teams are not natural rivals, and with Kansas City missing the playoffs the past two seasons, there was ample reason to look at the match as a run-of-the-mill MLS encounter.
But as the league enters its stretch run, this week's "MLS Primetime Thursday" game (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) between the Revs and Wizards has become a marquee matchup. Not only do the teams occupy the top two spots in the Eastern Conference, but they also possess the two most potent attacks in MLS. And those offenses were in full flight on May 26, when the Wizards outlasted the Revs in a 4-3 thriller, which extended the Wizards' unbeaten streak in Foxboro to a mind-boggling 11 games.
Five story lines to follow
1. Kansas City's rebound
The last time the Wizards enjoyed such a turnaround was in 2000, when Bob Gansler engineered a worst-to-first campaign that concluded with the team's only MLS championship. While there is still a long way to go this season, first-year head coach Curt Onalfo deserves plenty of credit for not only reviving his side, but doing so with an attack-minded style.
"We felt like we needed to get better in goal, we wanted to be more dynamic in midfield, and get Eddie [Johnson] back on track," Onalfo said. "We've been able to do all of those things in a short period of time."
2. New England reloads
It doesn't matter which players the Revolution lose, or how they lose them, the team just keeps motoring along. Injuries and international commitments have robbed the Revs of players like Daniel Hernandez, Joey Franchino, and Taylor Twellman for long stretches, but their spots were ably filled by James Riley, Jeff Larentowicz, and Adam Cristman. Larentowicz has performed so well in fact, that Hernandez has been released. Coach Steve Nicol credits the team's attitude in practice for the success of the one-time reserves.
"It's real easy to come to practice every day, and if you don't think you're playing on the weekend, to just go through the motions," Nicol said. "We have a bunch of guys who don't do that. Everybody puts their shift in. We really make that important, because you never know when your chance is going to come."
3. Man on fire
At the heart of Kansas City's turnaround has been the return to form of Johnson. After scoring only two goals in 2006, the U.S. international has lit up MLS this season with 12 goals in as many matches. And while health has played a part in his recovery, the relationship that Onalfo forged with Johnson while both were with the U.S. national team has had a bigger impact.
"[Johnson] has lots of structure here," Onalfo said. "I spend a lot of time with Eddie, keeping him on track and keeping him moving in the right direction. And give credit to him; he's had a good attitude, and he's working extremely hard to be successful."
4. The Revs' defensive hiccups
New England has one of the stingier defensive units in MLS, but it has also endured some peculiar meltdowns. The Revs have conceded three or more goals in three games this season, and what makes it even more of a head-scratcher is that they've all come at home. Nicol says his team's occasional defensive struggles have been all mental.
"We've lost concentration or we haven't had that extra yard to close the ball properly, and we've been punished," Nicol said.
5. Don't touch that dial
The Wizards' attack has been especially lethal in the final 15 minutes of games. They lead MLS with nine goals during that time frame, and five of those tallies have turned draws into wins. Without those strikes, the Wizards would be near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Onalfo credits the fitness work done in preseason, as well as his team's attacking mind-set for their late-game effectiveness.
"We place an emphasis on sending guys forward and putting teams on their heels," Onalfo said. "We're not a team that sits back."
Five players to watch
1. Andy Dorman, M, New England
Dorman's progression to becoming an elite MLS midfielder has been steady, but one that has been accelerated thanks to Clint Dempsey's offseason departure to Fulham of the EPL. The Boston University product has contributed seven goals this season, one fewer than Dempsey's mark for all of last season.
"Dorman's forte is his late runs," Nicol said. "He comes ghosting in from nowhere, and it's really difficult for teams to defend against because he times it so well."
2. Carlos Marinelli, M, Kansas City
What's remarkable about the Wizards' turnaround is that it's been done with largely the same cast of characters. But one important addition has been Marinelli, whose incisive passing out of midfield has added a new wrinkle to Kansas City's attack. Onalfo notes that an ankle injury that sidelined Marinelli for most of last season has slowed the Argentinean a bit, but he has still been an important contributor.
"Marinelli has such a great ability in terms of skill and passing," Onalfo said. "He's one of those guys whose pure ability can make a difference in a game."
3. Pat Noonan, F, New England
Another long-term injury victim has been Noonan, who was solidly in the U.S. national team frame until various ailments halted his progress. Yet the last two months have seen him gradually regain his form, and his understanding with Twellman remains borderline telepathic. Case in point was last weekend against Real Salt Lake, when Noonan's well-timed run allowed him to fire home Twellman's knockdown.
"The last 12 months have been hard for Noonan psychologically as much as anything," Nicol said. "Credit to him, he's come through it and gotten back to what he does, which is making and scoring goals."
4. Davy Arnaud, M, Kansas City
Every successful team has its share of unsung heroes, and Arnaud, with his four goals and five assists, tops the list for the Wizards. Aside from his pace, one of Arnaud's biggest assets is his versatility. The Texan began the season in midfield, but lately has moved up top, where he has continued to be a force in the attack.
"[Arnaud] is our quiet leader, and I believe he's the heart and soul of our team," Onalfo said. "He has an unbelievable work ethic and will to win, and he'll do anything for the team to be successful."
5. Michael Parkhurst, D, New England
Johnson lit New England up for a hat trick in their previous meeting, and it will be up to Parkhurst, as well as the rest of the Revs' back line, to make sure he doesn't deliver a repeat performance. Parkhurst has long relied on his timing and smarts to thwart the league's best attackers, and given Johnson's power and speed, it should make for an interesting matchup.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.