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Mar 26, 2008

Onalfo has Wizards ready to make some noise

Editor's note: This is the 12th of 14 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2008 season.

2007 record and finish: 11-12-7 (fifth in the East); reached MLS semifinals

Key additions: F Claudio Lopez, F Ivan Trujillo, D Chance Myers, M/D Roger Espinoza

Key losses: D Nick Garcia, D Jose Burciaga, F Eddie Johnson

Key questions facing team

1. Can the designated player gamble work for the Wizards?

Needing some offensive punch after the departure of striker Eddie Johnson to the Premiership with Fulham, Wizards coach Curt Onalfo brought in Claudio Lopez. The Argentine forward is in many ways everything that Johnson wasn't for the Kansas City squad.

In other words, Lopez is experienced, calm in front of goal, reliant more on technique than speed, creative, controlled and disciplined.

His credentials, including multiple World Cup appearances for one of the world's top teams, are impeccable.

Yet at 33, Lopez is a veteran striker who is still dependent on good service from the midfield, because he will not burst into space to score goals the way Johnson did. The skills of Lopez may be stifled by the bruising and physical play of MLS. Midfielder Carlos Marinelli, the team's creative playmaker, could be the key to unlocking the potential of Lopez if the two can combine well.

It's possible to bring in a quality player from abroad without having to dip into the designated player pool, as Columbus showed with another Argentine, Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Since Lopez is not considered famous enough to be a major attendance draw for Kansas City, he must score goals and set up attacking opportunities to justify the investment the Wizards have made in him.

2. Can the new defense work with an aging keeper?

As players work through their soccer careers, they often employ new strategies to keep their skills competitive, such as practicing yoga for better flexibility, or engaging in specialized training to meet fitness goals. Wizards goalkeeper Kevin Hartman has long been considered one of the league's best. He set a number of records during his extended tenure with the Galaxy before joining Kansas City last year. However, Hartman will be turning 34 soon. While his experience is vast, his reflexes are no longer what they once were. However, an offseason diet and exercise regime reportedly has helped Hartman become leaner and perhaps more able to leap than he could before.

He might be a very busy goalkeeper, because his defensive line is bursting with both the vigor and the unanswered questions of youthful potential. Since Jack Jewsbury often plays in the midfield, the only regular defender left from last season is team captain Jimmy Conrad.

The defensive prospects vying to become regulars include Aaron Hohlbein, Tyson Wahl and rookie Chance Myers. As they strive to contribute and impress, they undoubtedly will make mistakes that Conrad and Hartman may not always be able to fix.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"Onalfo is another great coach, and he provides great structure. Let's just say it -- Eddie Johnson is a project. It is difficult to manage that kid and I don't think I'm doing an injustice to him in saying that, because he's no longer a kid. He's moved on and that team has a little bit more focus now. They can focus on the task at hand. Curt Onalfo is a fantastic coach. He's had a great mentor with Bruce Arena. He's played in this league and he understands this league. He might be the hardest-working coach in Major League Soccer. I don't know if they're a championship team yet, but they do have some guys that can do something special. They've changed their back line -- this is the first time they'll be without Nick Garcia, as far as I can remember. We'll see how they adjust. "

3. Can the Wizards establish a team identity?

This could be the season that sets the tone for the Wizards for some time. When Bob Gansler coached the team, the squad was known for its defensive discipline. Since Onalfo has taken the reins, the Wizards have shown in stretches a more free-flowing, attacking style, twice winning games last season by scoring four goals. Yet as the year progressed, the team began to emphasize tactical defense, using a bunkering style to stymie Chivas USA in the playoffs and advance.

Onalfo has had a year to get his feet wet as a head coach. Now he has both the players he wants and the time to impose his system. The coach and some members of the roster have a great deal of experience with a more improvisational style of soccer that is reminiscent of Latin America as opposed to Europe. Traditionally one of the most anonymous teams in MLS, the Wizards look to stand out this season.

4. Who will be the young gun on offense?

A striker who is a lone threat is often not an effective threat, because defenders will clamp down on the dangerous player. Almost every forward who does well in MLS does so with a complementary player. The combination of a fast, explosive player with a crafty, seasoned one usually works.

Since Lopez likely will fill the wily veteran role, new acquisition Ivan Trujillo will battle Scott Sealy and Eloy Colombano to take on the part of the hustle player who runs all game long to create space for the attack.

Biggest X Factor: Carlos Marinelli

Once touted as a successor to the most accomplished Argentine playmakers in history, Marinelli contributed a goal and five assists to the Kansas City cause last season. That's not shabby, but the midfielder is capable of better. Unfortunately, Marinelli's hangdog expression during some matches seemed to reveal his frustration. Whether it was with himself or his teammates or the MLS style of play, the emotion seemed to distract him at times from producing and working well with his teammates.

Perhaps the arrival of Lopez will recharge Marinelli and create the positive energy needed to overcome any lingering disappointment Marinelli may still feel about falling short of potential. That way he can concentrate on partnering well with Lopez and on what the two can accomplish together for the Wizards.

Breakout player to watch: Ivan Trujillo

Tall and strong, the Colombian forward is capable of propelling Kansas City to the next level. The attention paid to Lopez may serve Trujillo well, easing a bit of the pressure on him to perform and allowing him to adjust to the league at his own pace. At only 25, Trujillo has notched an upward trajectory of goals in his years with various clubs in his native country. He scored 11 goals in 2007, a solid number given that he played for two different teams, Once Caldas and La Equidad. If his transition to MLS can be just as seamless, he could be a crucial member of the Wizards' attack.

MLS Primetime Thursday
Thursday, April 3
New England at Chicago
8 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose at Los Angeles
10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Outlook

Technically, the Wizards didn't make the Eastern Conference playoffs last year -- they qualified through the West because of an unbalanced number of teams in the league. Now that San Jose has returned to equalize the number of teams, qualifying for the playoffs becomes more difficult.

Despite saying that his team needs more consistency, Onalfo has taken a chance by overhauling his team. He has gone for more experience in the attack, relying on Lopez there. In contrast, he has given youth an opportunity on the defensive end, releasing players who performed there for years.

Yet the core of the squad is the midfield, and that remains both largely intact and deep. Kerry Zavagnin, Sasha Victorine and Kurt Morsink are all capable performers who can help accommodate the newcomers.

One distinct advantage that the Wizards may have this season is that, unlike previous seasons, the roster is unlikely to be disturbed too much by international duty for either the Olympics or World Cup qualifying. Sealy is the only player likely to be called in by another country for qualifying duty. Except for Conrad, no one on the Wizards is a regular for the U.S. national team. Even Conrad was not tapped for the most recent match versus Mexico or the friendly in Poland.

That continuity should allow Kansas City to focus unequivocally on the MLS season. If the Wizards can ride out the inevitable defensive bobbles and create good offensive chemistry, come playoff time, they could make some magic.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.