Whenever one takes a look at the Eastern Conference standings, chances are the New York Red Bulls and the Kansas City Wizards are sitting right next to each other. In each of the past four seasons, the two sides have never finished more than three points apart, and on two of those occasions, New York knocked the Wizards out of the playoff race with late-season wins.
Five story lines to follow
1. The Red Bulls find their offense, for the time being
Over the first four weeks of the season, New York's entire offensive output consisted of an own goal by New England defender Jay Heaps. Finally in week five, the Red Bulls enjoyed an attacking outburst of sorts, with Macoumba Kandji and Juan Pablo Angel both netting goals in a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake that was New York's first of the season.
"We've been playing better than the results show," said New York coach Juan Carlos Osorio. "I think in the previous two games we created enough chances to score at least a couple of goals, but we didn't. We kept telling our players that it was a matter of time, and things would turn around. [Saturday] was a good time, and hopefully we can keep creating chances for our forwards."
2. Kansas City's revival
The first two weeks of the season, Kansas City was easy pickings, but lately, the Wizards have been tougher to kill than Jack Bauer. They rode a late Davy Arnaud goal to hand Seattle its first loss back on April 11, but last Saturday against Chicago they outdid themselves. Kansas City looked hopeless for the first 70 minutes, and deservedly trailed 2-0. But a furious comeback capped by two Josh Wolff goals allowed the Wizards to salvage a 2-2 draw.
"Sometimes we make it interesting," Wizards coach Curt Onalfo said with a chuckle. "But the important thing is that we finished strong, got a point, and we've been tough over our last three games."
3. Conway comes in from the cold
Saturday's victory over RSL was notable for another reason, that being the return of New York goalkeeper Jon Conway. Conway, you will recall, was suspended for 10 games by MLS for taking performance-enhancing drugs, a stretch that included the team's remarkable run to last year's MLS Cup final, as well as the first four games of this season. But with his suspension served, Conway returned to the lineup, and looked like he had never been away. In a sense, he hadn't.
New York at Kansas City
CommunityAmerica Ballpark, Kansas City, Kansas
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"I think all of our patience, including his, paid off in the last game," Osorio said. "All the training we have been doing for the entire preseason, and what we have done so far this season, we always included him in our game and tactical sessions, so he wasn't strange to the way we were playing and the way we wanted to do things."
4. Hartman reaches another milestone
Earlier this season, Wizards goalkeeper Kevin Hartman achieved a unique trifecta when he became the all-time MLS saves leader, to go along with career marks he already held for wins and shutouts. On Thursday, Hartman's exploits will be honored in a pregame ceremony, but his recent form hasn't been bad either. Granted, his failure to communicate with defender Jimmy Conrad led to Chicago's first goal, but "El Gato" proceeded to deliver a string of superb saves in the second half to keep Kansas City in the contest.
"The milestone is an amazing individual achievement," Onalfo said. "But [Hartman] has been able to do that because he's a very good professional; he's an unbelievable competitor, and that's enabled him to be in the starting lineup and play so many games in this league.
"In terms of the game last weekend, I thought his response [to the first goal] was excellent. Good competitors find a way to put that behind them and that's what he did."
5. Reinforcements arrive for New York
Throughout their early-season struggles, Osorio has been banking on the arrival of several imports to bolster his squad. But a litany of problems with visas, International Transfer Certificates, injuries and suspensions has prevented Albert Celades, Carlos Johnson and Alfredo Pacheco from suiting up at the same time. On Thursday it looks like at least two of those three will be in the lineup. Johnson, back from suspension for a red card he received against Houston on April 11, should man the right back position with Pacheco on the opposite flank. Celades, he of La Liga pedigree, is battling a hamstring injury, and with Seth Stammler in good form, it may be a while longer before the Spaniard cracks the lineup.
Five players to watch
1. Josh Wolff, M/F, Kansas City
The former U.S. international has alternated between forward and left flank positions this season. But Wolff certainly looked more comfortable up top, and seems to be benefiting from finding a semblance of good health after struggling with injuries since arriving in the middle of last season.
"[Wolff] is an experienced pro, who is still very, very fast," Onalfo said. "When you combine the quickness that he still has and the savvy-ness in the way he moves, it's a good combination to have. I'm happy that he got his two goals last weekend, and I think that will give him confidence as we move forward."
2. Juan Pablo Angel, F, New York
The goals have been slow to come for Angel this season, but he still remains the most lethal finisher in MLS, and his well-taken goal against RSL is testament to that. Angel was substituted shortly thereafter due to tightness in his hamstring, but the word out of New York is that the move was precautionary, and the Colombian should be able to take the field against Kansas City on Thursday.
3. Davy Arnaud, M/F, Kansas City
Wolff received the league's Player of the Week award for his exploits against the Fire, but Arnaud has been the Wizards' most consistent player this season, and his ability to strike from distance has made him devastatingly effective, whether lined up at forward or in the center of midfield.
4. Macoumba Kandji, F, New York
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Kandji's pace and skill on the ball have helped take some of the attacking burden off Angel, as witnessed by Kandji's deft assist in the run-up to Angel's goal against Real. Kandji missed most of the preseason due to the fact that his application for political asylum prevented him from leaving the country, but that matter has now been settled in Kandji's favor, leaving the Senegal native to further establish his partnership with Angel.
"We have done a lot of tactical sessions with those two," Osorio said of Angel and Kandji. "But I think they are understanding each other, and getting the best out of each other at the moment."
5. Jimmy Conrad, D, Kansas City
The Wizards defender hasn't found the net so far this year, but after tallying six times last season, it's clear that Conrad remains a force on set pieces. Conrad is also being counted on to marshal a young defense that contains rookie Matt Besler, as well as more experienced youngsters like Aaron Hohlbein and Lance Watson.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.