By Pat Martin, Soccer Editor
Kansas City, MO (Sports Network) -
What a difference a year makes.
Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season in 2006, losing on the final day of the regular season to New York, 3-2.
Since that day, the Wizards have been working toward not only being a successful team on the field, but a successful franchise off it. That all started on Sept. 1 when the team was purchased by OnGoal, LLC from the Hunt Sports Group. Under the new ownership, the organization has been emphasizing building its fan base by providing the most exciting product possible.
That all starts with the new technical staff, led by director Peter Vermes and new head coach Curt Onalfo. Under their leadership, the Wizards are off to a 6-2-1 start, with the most recent fixture being a 3-2 home victory against the team that ended their playoff hopes a year ago.
"I think we are off to a good start, which is exactly what we wanted," Onalfo said. "We have a new ownership group and a whole new technical staff starting with Peter Vermes, our technical director, and I am extremely pleased with the start."
What makes the Wizards a different club on the field this year is their ability to aggressively attack their opponents. Kansas City leads MLS with an average of 2.11 goals scored per game. The offense has been sparked by the resurgence of U.S. National Team striker Eddie Johnson, who leads MLS with nine goals, including hat tricks in back-to-back games before joining the national team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup which runs through June 24.
"Eddie is off to a very good start but we feel we have guys that can step up (in his absence)," Onalfo said. "We have guys like Davy Arnaud (two goals, three assists) who has been playing very, very well. He has been unfortunate not to have more goals. We have Scott Sealy (1 G, 1 A), who is coming back from an injury. He was our leading scorer last year. We have Ryan Pore, who is in very good form, as is Yura Movsisyan (1 G).
The Wizards are off to a 6-2-1 start.
"And then we have guys like Michael Harrington (2 G, 3 A), Sasha Victorine (1 G, 3 A) and Carlos Marinelli (1 G, 2 A) that have all proven to do very good things and be dangerous in their own rights. We feel like it is going to be a little bit more of a team effort and when somebody is out, either due to injury or national team call-ups or what have you, it is an opportunity for somebody else to step it up. We feel like we are a good team, one to 28, and we look forward to the challenges and we look forward to those guys stepping up and doing well."
Players will need to step up for the team's next fixture, a rematch of their June 2 game with the first-place Red Bulls, this time at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., not Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
"New York has proven to be a very good team and Juan Pablo Angel is just an amazing goal-scorer," Onalfo said. "If you just watch them play, no matter what the score is or how they are playing, they are always a threat because of Angel. We know they are a very, very good team. They are extremely good at home and we are looking forward to it."
While the team's positive results so far are encouraging, Onalfo is stressing improved performance and putting an exciting product on the field in order to boost the fan base and become a better overall product on and off the field.
"We feel fortunate the results have gone our way early on but we are really looking at things objectively and gage our performance," he said. "That way we are constantly improving. Hopefully, if you do things correctly the results will fall your way."
That is important, considering after four home games the Wizards were last in the league in average attendance at 9,720. But there is reason for optimism because of the excitement the team has generated and the number of fans who have turned out for recent contests, particularly the win against New York.
"We had almost 14,000 at our last game and they were just rocking," Onalfo said. "They walked away after a great game so I assure you it is only going to get better. We have a front office that is really brand new and that is going to be a process and they are doing a great job. We have local owners who rub elbows with some of the top executives in the area and I believe we have a very good technical staff doing good things with the team on the field. I believe it is a combination of the two (that will help fan support grow). A big goal of mine is to really contribute a significant fan base and you do that by creating a good team and also getting in the community."
The Wizards recent community involvement includes a new world-class training center set to open in Swope Park this month with the ownership group and its partners also seeking to build a world-class soccer facility in the Kansas City metro area to replace Arrowhead Stadium as the home of the team.
"At the end of the day, people need to be pounding the pavement to sell tickets and we need to do our jobs on the technical side," Onalfo said. "You put that all together you are eventually going to get that fan base that you need and we are working toward it. I feel a real excitement in this community and it is only going to get better."
And with the recent improvement the Wizards have shown on the field, Onalfo and the Wizards players are making it a lot easier for the front office staff to sell tickets.