K.C. will have an international flavor

Wizards add seven key cogs in rebuilding effort for 2010

Roster turnover was a
foregone conclusion for the Kansas City Wizards this offseason after a
disappointing 2009. It’s the sheer volume of international acquisitions,
however, that has raised some eyebrows around CommunityAmerica Ballpark.

Since the 2009 season ended in disappointment, Kansas City
scoured the globe in search of MLS-compatible talent, collecting the signatures
of seven international players and drastically changing the makeup of its
roster in the process.

Gone are the likes of Kevin Hartman, Claudio López, Adam
Cristman and Herculez Gomez.

In their place, the Wizards believe Ryan Smith (England),
Craig Rocastle (England), Igor Kostrov (Moldova), Stéphane Auvray (Guadeloupe),
Pablo Escobar (Colombia) Birahim Diop (Senegal) and Jimmy Nielsen (Denmark) can
help erase the memory of a 2009 season in which the team finished third to last
in the standings and collected only 12 points of a possible 39 after the
All-Star break.

“We have been able to start again with practically a new
team from the bottom, and work our way up,” assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin
said. “The foundation is starting to be laid. It’s a lengthy process, but we
feel like we are in a position where we can have success early on.”

And with so many new faces, early success will hinge on the ability
of the team’s seven additions to mesh with their teammates and adapt to the
tactics, pace and physicality of MLS. But all seven boast a professional
background that has the coaching staff optimistic about the acclimation

Perhaps the most likely to succeed is Auvray, the captain of
the Guadeloupe national team and one of Kansas City’s steadiest contributors
this preseason. A tireless holding midfield player, Auvray figures to occupy one
of two central midfield roles after spending the last decade plying his trade
in France.

“He’s had a healthy dose of European soccer,” Zavagnin said.
“His presence alone in the center part of midfield makes us a better team. He
brings that quiet presence off the field and assurance that everything will be
taken care of.”

Diop -- Auvray’s central midfield partner for much of the
preseason -- was announced as the team’s most recent signing on Wednesday and
is the only player with previous MLS experience. He played for current Kansas
City assistant Octavio Zambrano with the Metrostars and should bring
another set-piece threat to a team lacking a true aerial presence outside of veteran
defender Jimmy Conrad.

For his part, Nielsen brings more than 15 years of
professional experience as a goalkeeper in Denmark’s Superliga, and Rocastle is
a nine-year veteran of the English first, second and third divisions. He’s
agreed to contract terms but is still waiting on receipt of a P1 visa.

“A lot of the guys that we’ve brought in have composure, experience,”
Conrad said. “Game-in and game-out, you’re going to get a nice, consistent
effort from them. It’s easier for us to predict what they are going to do, and
how they are going to do it.”

The most intriguing signings might just be the youthful trio
of Kostrov (22), Smith (23) and Escobar (23). Smith is tied for second on the
team with four goals this preseason and is a probable starter as an outside
midfielder, and Kostrov is a speedy wing player who will most likely add an
attacking threat off the bench.

Escobar followed current Seattle Sounders FC standouts
Freddy Montero and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado from Colombian club Deportivo Cali and
is competing against Matt Besler and Aaron Hohlbein for the right to partner
Conrad in central defense.

“I feel like we’ve
accomplished a lot of things in the preseason,” Zavagnin said, “but it’s not
until you get into the real league play that you find out what you have. We’re
excited to find that out relatively quickly.”