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Wizards poised to be this season's surprise

The year was 2004 and the Kansas City Wizards had every reason to believe that they just might have a team that could add a few MLS Cup trophies to the 2000 trophy the club already has. Boasting a talented young squad that won the U.S. Open Cup and reached the MLS Cup final, the Wizards were riding high and looked primed for a lengthy run of success.

Things didn't quite work out that way.

Two straight years of late-season swoons and missed playoffs coupled with dogged rumors that the franchise would be sold turned the Wizards from potential dynasty to club in crisis. The roster was still loaded with talent, but the results stopped coming. When the Wizards failed to reach the postseason for a second straight year in 2006, it became very clear that changes needed to be made and a new coach was needed to help turn things around.

During the same time Kansas City was struggling, Curt Onalfo was busy looking for an opportunity. A U.S. national team assistant at the time, Onalfo felt he was ready to be an MLS head coach, but could not find the job to prove it. Even after being turned down as a candidate to coach the Colorado Rapids before the 2005 season (the Rapids hired Fernando Clavijo) Onalfo was determined to find the job that could help him prove just how good a coach he was.

Enter the Wizards, whose fortunes began turning in the fall of 2006 when they were bought by a local ownership group, OnGoal, which all but assured that the Wizards would not pull a San Jose and move the team. Kansas City hired Onalfo soon after and his first season in charge saw the Wizards not only qualify for the playoffs, but reach the Western Conference final after knocking off Chivas USA.

That late-season success has been followed by an impressive offseason of trades and acquisitions that have Kansas City poised to be the surprise team of the league. The Wizards' 2-0 victory against D.C. United in the season opener, served notice that this team is no longer the club that struggled through those tough 2005 and 2006 seasons, and that Onalfo has the squad ready to go well beyond just making the playoffs.

"I've seen him behind the scenes with the national team and his attention to detail is very good," Wizards captain Jimmy Conrad said of Onalfo. "The way he scouts, the way he prepares, and I thought he would be a good fit because I think we just needed a shift in mentality and ideas and a breath of fresh air and he provided that."

"I feel like I put a lot of time into getting prepared for this day," Onalfo said. "I spent seven years as an assistant coach and I think it prepared me for all the things you're going to see in an MLS season.

"I never felt like I was in a situation where I was unprepared," Onalfo said. "I love what I do, I feel like I'm good at what I do and I'm going to make the most of the opportunity because I feel like it's a privilege to be a coach in MLS and I think there are probably a million other coaches out there that would want my job so I'm going to make the most of my opportunity."

Onalfo has done just that with two straight offseasons of quality roster moves. It took the Wizards some time last year to see the impact of Onalfo's influence, but heading into 2008, it is clear that this is the team Onalfo and technical director Peter Vermes set out to build.

The Wizards have added Kevin Hartman, Carlos Marinelli, Claudio Lopez, Ivan Trujillo, Michael Harrington, Chance Myers and Jon Leathers, a good mix of young talent and experience that has bought into Onalfo's system.

"Last year's team still had a bigger influence from the coaching staff and front office from before," Conrad said. "So now, going into year two, the staff has a better idea of what it wants, who is buying into their philosophy and I think they've done a good job of mixing the personalities."

Conrad has seen firsthand all the issues the club has had to deal with in the years following that MLS Cup appearance in 2004. While he was quick to point out that games missed by players due to national team duty played a big part in the team's struggles since 2005, but did provide some insight into what those underachieving Wizards squads lacked.

"What we've been kind of missing is some personal accountability from our big-time players," Conrad said. "Players that will say, 'You know what, I'm going to go there, this is my job.' no matter what.

"When you see a Claudio Lopez getting into the trenches and doing the dirty work, our young guys have nothing to say," Conrad said. "If our big guys are out there doing the dirty work to make us better, it is an attitude that can spread throughout the team."

Both Conrad and Onalfo credited a strong crop of incoming rookies with providing a boost to the team, both in terms of talent and personality.

"Our young guys are very good about taking advice and are always willing to listen," Conrad said. "That's been a very big plus and I think some of the negative attitude we've had on the teams in the past is gone.

"That negative attitude, some guys buy into that and some guys don't, and we've done a good job of encouraging good habits and a positive way of solving issues."

With Onalfo strengthening the club on the field, the Wizards' new owners have strengthened the club off the field by not only investing in infrastructure, including a new practice facility and a new stadium set to be open in 2010, but by also investing in the on-field product by signing the club's first designated player, Argentine striker Claudio Lopez.

Much like the Wizards' new stadium, Onalfo's team is still a work in progress. He is still chiseling and molding a young and deep squad that just might have the talent to break-up the stranglehold on the Eastern Conference enjoyed by New England and D.C. United in recent years.

"You can still call those teams the favorites, but I like the direction we are headed in," Onalfo said. "It's foolish to talk about where we might be at the end of the year, but with the players we have and the way we're making progress, I'm confident this will be a good season."

With everything going on off the field and on the field in Kansas City these days, Onalfo has plenty of reason to feel optimistic. The same goes for Kansas City fans who still might get to see the Wizards add a few more MLS Cup trophies to the trophy case.

Game previews

Eight games into the new MLS season and one thing seems clear. There won't be anybody running away with the early part of the season.

Colorado Rapids at Kansas City Wizards

The Wizards get another game at their new temporary home at CommunityAmerica Ballpark and if the Game 1 win against D.C. showed anything, it is that playing at that cozy stadium will serve as a real advantage.

The Rapids are riding the momentum of dismantling the Galaxy last week, but this week's opponent will present far more problems. The Wizards defense was stellar in its debut and should be up to the task of halting a Rapids forward line that still has more question marks than answers. KC makes it 2-0 at the ball park. Wizards 2, Rapids 0.

Columbus Crew at New York Red Bulls

Columbus comes into this match with the advantage of having already played an MLS game while the Red Bulls may wind up starting two rookies on the wings in the team's season opener.

The key for the Crew will be using its speedy duo of Alejandro Moreno and Robbie Rogers to run at a Red Bulls defense in flux. With Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Eddie Gaven also capable of beating players one-on-one, the Red Bulls' shift to a 3-4-1-2 formation could lead to growing pains. Crew 2, Red Bulls 1.

Toronto FC at D.C. United

Toronto's season-opening road swing goes to RFK Stadium, where an angry D.C. squad will be looking to go off after being shutout in consecutive games last week. Look for D.C. to shred Toronto's defense and show the attacking muscle we've been expecting. D. C. United 3, Toronto FC 1.

Real Salt Lake at Chivas USA

RSL played very well against the Chicago Fire to start the season, but still came away with just a point. Now the real test of how much better Jason Kreis' team is comes at the Home Depot Center, where Chivas USA is still dealing with some injuries.

Look for the Chivas USA defense to slow down Real Salt Lake's quick attack as Brad Guzan gets a shutout and Sacha Kljestan leads the attack. Chivas USA 2, Real Salt Lake 0.


FC Dallas at Houston Dynamo

The Texas derby has a different feel to it this time around. Houston comes in off a bad 3-0 loss to New England while FC Dallas squandered a late-lead and settled for a tie against Chivas USA. You would normally give the edge to Houston being at Robertson Stadium but the Dynamo just got blanked in a 0-0 Champions Cup match against Saprissa on Wednesday.

FC Dallas won't be as lucky as Chris Wondolowski finds the net and Houston's defense keeps the Hoops off the board. Dynamo 2, FC Dallas 0.

Last week's record: 3-2-1

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at