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 process.
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.”