Lurking Wizards prepared for D.C.

and they succeeded. The Wizards piled up more wins than any other team in MLS in 2004 and only missed out on the Supporters Shield because of a tiebreaker. And now, they'll play in MLS Cup 2004 on Sunday against United with a chance to become just the third team in league history to win multiple championships.

"If there's one thing this group hasn't done all year is worry about what the outsiders and the so-called experts think," said team captain Diego Gutierrez on a conference call Tuesday. "If we believed everything we read and everything we hear, we would have come in 10th in the league, for sure. This team has been counted out pretty much all year long, and we've never had a problem with that."

There were two specific occasions this year when various pundits pronounced the Wizards dead. One occurred before the season had even begun, when 2003 MLS MVP Preki went down with a serious ankle injury after forward Igor Simutenkov had already been lost to injury. The other was when midfielder Chris Klein, an early favorite for MVP this year, suffered a torn ACL in August.

Wizards forward Josh Wolff, who led the team in scoring with 27 points from 10 goals and seven assists, said those injuries were massive hurdles, but stressed that the road was smoothed by the team's leaders, such as Gutierrez and Defender of the Year nominee Jimmy Conrad.

"Coming into the season without Preki and Igor forced us to find a way to play," Wolff said. "But I think the biggest (injury) to overcome was when Chris Klein went down.

"We did face some tough times early on this season, but we had some great leaders."

Another roadblock that popped up along the way was an Achilles tendon injury to starting goalkeeper Tony Meola. Luckily for the Wizards, veteran backup Bo Oshoniyi -- a player whom his teammates claim could start for almost any other MLS team -- was waiting in the wings. Oshoniyi started the final nine games of the season and all of the Wizards playoff games thus far, allowing only 10 goals.

"We talked about different guys being pillars of the team as we went into the season, and for sure, Tony was one of them," said Gansler, adding that when Meola suffered his injury, "You gulped a little bit, but you said, 'Bo will do it.' And Bo has done it.

"And the guys knew it right away. They didn't feel that they had to alter their way of playing in any way in order to protect Bo. One pillar went down, and another went up and held his end of the bargain up."

Now, just one win away from a second trophy in two months -- the Wizards won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in September -- Gansler and his team are facing their next impediment, an attack-minded D.C. United team, with the same level-headedness they've carried throughout the campaign.

"I feel our group has given a good account of themselves on pretty much a daily basis," Gansler said. "I think only on maybe three occasions were we outclassed. The 20 wins and a few ties sprinkled in are indicative that our group knows how to play the game and endeavors to win."

Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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