United's season opener is just a few hours away, and will take place at the same venue where 2009 ended: Kansas City's CommunityAmerica Ballpark. Most will recall the gut-wrenching way last season was brought to a close, as the Wizards tied the game in stoppage time from the penalty spot after Fred, in an attempt to save the season, blocked a goalbound shot with his arm. Rodney Wallace's 93rd minute effort from the top of the box hit the inside of the post, but bounced out instead of in. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued.
If that, and the fact that you want to start every season on the right foot, weren't incentive enough to win tonight, we should look no further than the DC bench. Curt Onalfo will be up against his former employer, and coaching against Peter Vermes, the man largely responsible for the decision to fire Onalfo. United assistant coach Kris Kelderman, midfielder Kurt Morsink, and striker Adam Cristman were all with the Wizards in 2009 as well.
What should we expect from Kansas City? What about United's lineup?The Wizards have undergone massive changes. Kevin Hartman, Claudio Lopez, and Lance Watson have been shown the door while players like Michael Harrington (right back), Roger Espinoza (left back) , and possibly Josh Wolff (attacking midfield?) are being used in new positions. Attacker Herculez Gomez also left town, though in his case it was because Mexican club Puebla bought his rights. Vermes has signed a slew of international players, ranging from MLS favorites like Colombia (center back Pablo Escobar) and countries that have never had an MLS player before, like Moldova (midfielder Igor Kostrov) and India (forward Sunil Chhetri). My Eastern Conference preview lists KC finishing in dead last, as I'm not impressed by these signings or by the team's performance under Vermes last season (12 points from 12 games during the stretch...not good at all). However, I'd be foolish to ignore the fact that I don't know much about the new guys Vermes brought in. It could be that Vermes is crazy like a fox, or he could just be crazy.
The big additions to Kansas City's squad should be speedy winger Ryan Smith (an Arsenal youth product) and defensive midfielder Stephane Auvray (of Guadaloupe, and a seasoned veteran of France's Ligue 2). Escobar should contend for playing time alongside Jimmy Conrad down the road, but may not be ready to jump into a role that requires so much communication with limited English skills. Senegalese midfielder Birahim Diop, who appeared 4 times for the MetroStars back in 2001, may have a shot at a starting role if he can beat out incumbent Santiago Hirsig.
Given the number of changes in KC, it's hard to predict exactly what their team will be tonight. However, to adapt a totally unrelated quote from the Hagakure, it is best to dash in headlong:
If this formation ends up being accurate, look for Auvray to be the all-action central player, while Hirsig will try to find gaps to control the tempo alongside him. Arnaud and Smith will push high up the wings, and Wolff will probably spend a lot of time trying to play underneath Kamara. There is the possibility that KC will start Diop centrally, which would mean either Hirsig moving to the right and Arnaud playing up front instead of Kamara, or a 4231 (with Hirsig making it three in central midfield, Arnaud and Smith on the flanks, and Wolff trying to replicate the way Seattle uses Fredy Montero alone up top).
Now, on to what I think the United team will be:
There are a couple of minor question marks here. I had said on Twitter that I thought Khumalo would start at right midfield, but the narrow confines at the CAB have given me pause. Khumalo may be too likely to turn the ball over in tight spaces, and Barklage is more likely to win the ball back (as well as being better than Khumalo in central areas, which on a narrow field is a skill that applies to everyone). I don't know if Barklage is 90 minutes fit, but I'm 60% sure it'll be him over Khumalo on the right.
Elsewhere, new signing Carey Talley will probably jump straight into the team. Devon McTavish's hamstring injury leaves little choice, as the only other options at the moment would be to either throw Lyle Adams into the deep end of the pool, or to move Julius James into a position that isn't his best. Even if Onalfo wants to use James at right back, we'd still have to start Talley in central defense since Juan Manuel Pena has not finalized his paperwork. I suppose we could throw Barry Rice in, but that is obviously not happening this early in his pro career.
As for the likely subs, I think we'll see a bench of Bill Hamid, Adams, Morsink, Andy Najar, Khumalo, Danny Allsopp, and Adam Cristman. Onalfo is known for throwing forwards into games, so I think we'll see all 4 strikers available for every game they're fit for. There are rumors that Najar will enter tonight's game at some point (forgive the lack of link, I'm crunched for time and can't remember where I read it), which would be a pretty bold statement on his level of play at just 17 years old. If the game goes well, expect to see Morsink get in to clog up central midfield in the last 15-20 minutes.
Overall, I think this is a game we should win. I'm unimpressed with the Wizards as a unit, though they do have some good pieces. While we have more new players, KC is likely going to use more players with no MLS experience. That should play into our favor, as should Onalfo's advanced knowledge of many of the players suiting up in blue tonight. I don't predict scores out of a superstition born years ago, but I will say that I would not be shocked to see another DC goal from a corner kick. The Wizards have new players and people in new roles, and things like that tend to lead to confusion on set piece marking. Let's hope it pans out in our favor.