Nielsen at FCD 10

Kansas City 3-match breakdown: Midseason

All season long, has been breaking down the Kansas City Wizards’ season in three-match blocks. Consider it 10 quick glimpses into KC’s year, each of which plays a critical role in the team’s quest to return to the playoffs. This is the fifth of 10 installments, arriving at the halfway point of the 2010 season.

Table Position: 5th in the Eastern Conference (4-8-3, 15 points)

Last three matches

July 3 at FC Dallas – 1-0 defeat

July 10 vs. Chivas USA – 2-0 defeat

July 14 at Columbus Crew – 1-0 victory

Next three matches

July 17 at Colorado Rapids (6-4-4, 22 points)

July 31 vs. Toronto FC (6-4-4, 22 points)

August 7 vs. Real Salt Lake (9-3-3, 30 points)

Player to Remember: GK Jimmy Nielsen

After the shot-stopping exhibition Nielsen put on against Columbus, there is little doubt he belongs in the upper echelon of MLS netminders. The White Puma made save after save to preserve Kansas City’s first road victory of the season against one of the league’s best teams.

If the defense can ever cure the soft-goal epidemic that has plagued it for most of the season, Nielsen is ready to be the foundation for a midseason turnaround. If not, he’ll still keep Kansas City in games and at least give the side a chance to walk away with a result.

Player to Watch: F Teal Bunbury

The Wizards’ scoring issues are well-documented at this point: 12 goals in 15 games with four of those goals coming six coming on opening day against D.C. United. And six of the dozen have been scored by Kei Kamara alone.

If Kansas City want to claw their way back into the playoff chase, they need another forward to shoulder some of the scoring load. Acquisitions aside, rookie Bunbury seems the most likely candidate to fill the void after opening his professional account against the Crew.

Two Things That Went Right

1) Stephane Auvray’s return to the starting lineup

Auvray still isn’t quite back to 100 percent, but it’s clear just how much he means to the Wizards. The holding midfielder is calm and collected on the ball, a staunch defender and surprisingly adventurous going forward.

More telling is the fact that Kansas City are 0-4-2 without Auvray in the lineup and 4-4-1 with him on the field. His anchoring presence allows the Wizards' other midfielders to go forward with the luxury of knowing the Guadeloupean is there to cover.

2) The road victory in Columbus

Not many saw this one coming. Kansas City were coming off three straight defeats, hadn’t won away from CommunityAmerica Ballpark in 10 months and were winless at Crew Stadium in their last five trips.

Nevertheless, the Wizards did the business, riding a first-half goal from Bunbury to a shocking result at a time they desperately needed it. Now the challenge will be replicating it. If Peter Vermes’ team wants to make the playoffs, they are going to have to regularly get three points at home and on the road.

Two Things That Went Wrong

1) The second half against Chivas USA

Jimmy Conrad had avoided giving up soft goals of his own until Justin Braun exploited two mistakes by the veteran to snatch the full points in a battle of conference doormats at CAB.

It looked like that loss might spell the end of the road for the Wizards’ 2010 hopes until they won in Columbus, but the defeat to the Goats still stings as a lost opportunity to pick up another three points at home, especially considering how well Vermes’ team played otherwise.

2) The Wizards attack or lack thereof

Kansas City have scored eight goals in 14 games since defeating D.C. United way back on March 27. That kind of production just isn’t going to be enough to push the Wizards back into the playoff race.

Vermes started Bunbury ahead of Josh Wolff against the Crew, and the rookie’s speed and aggressive nature resulted in the game’s only goal. Kansas City are going to need a lot more of that from Bunbury and the rest of the attackers from here on out.

Looking Ahead

Things only get harder as the playoff race heats up along with the weather. Realistically, Kansas City need at least 40 points to have a legitimate shot at the postseason based on previous seasons.

That means a record of at least 7-4-4 over the final 15 games of the season to get to 40, which is a big jump from the team’s first half and would by no means guarantee a playoff spot.

First up is a tough fixture at the Colorado Rapids this weekend followed by home games against two sides currently in very good form, Toronto FC and Real Salt Lake. Realistically, four points from these three matches would go a long way to restoring some confidence before the team hits the make-or-break portion of the schedule.