Wizards want to be No. 1 in the East

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Despite winning all three away matches in a tough week's time, the Kansas City Wizards are far from content. After taking nine points from the three games - including victories against the teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference, the Wizards still find themselves tied for third place in the division, still behind both New England and Chicago.

"It's three games that turned out to be a must-win for us. At the outset we were setting out to get nine points out of nine, we would have said that would have put us, if not at the top, second," said Wizards captain Diego Gutierrez. "But as it turned out, we're still in the same spot. But we know we can win games here or there, and it gives us a little bit more confidence heading into the final stretch."

And another busy stretch is ahead of the Wizards as they embark on another three games in a week stretch, starting Friday night at home against the Chicago Fire, followed by a midweek U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal against USL First Division (second tier) Minnesota Thunder and ending with an Arrowhead encounter with conference bottom club Columbus Crew.

"When we came back [from the All-Star break], we wanted to really concentrate on what we were doing and trying to raise our level of play. And I think we've done that in the last three games. Everybody can't keep up like this, and we want to make sure that we do," said midfielder Chris Klein.

"We're not a team that's concerned about trying to sneak into the fourth position for the playoffs. We want to be in there, be first, and have home-field advantage. Those are goals of ours. The concern is not really who's behind us, or who we are tied with, but who's ahead of us."

Last season the Wizards were able to close out the final stretch by going unbeaten over their last five games to gain home-field advantage for the MLS Cup Playoffs, which paid off handsomely as it helped propel them into MLS Cup 2004.

But they were in first place the vast majority of the time, and now this year they are looking up, as D.C. United sits astride them in third with the same 38 points earned in one less game played. Chicago is just above at 39 with one more played and New England leads with 42 points.

The pressure of every match is welcomed though, according to Klein.

"It does [put a lot of pressure on for every game], and that's great. This league is getting to the point where every game matters. We went 3-0 last week, and now you say, 'Wow, we've got Chicago at home - this is a huge game.' It doesn't take any of the pressure off that we won three in a row. It puts more on," Klein said. "Now we have a chance to pass Chicago, and that's our goal right now."

Being attuned to themselves and not being distracted by the success or failure of others is the time-tested strategy for success promoted by Wizards head coach Bob Gansler.

"Our perspective hasn't changed. It's about the quality of performance. It's not about the numbers," said the dean of MLS coaches.

But, sure, he'd like to have the No. 1 seed for the playoffs too. And, as he hints, it is more than a desire.

"That's what we play for. You can only take care of what you can take care of. The quality of your performance will get you points. We did what we could do and did it extremely well," Gansler said. "But what we're looking at is the quality of our performance. The guys can [be], and should [be], and I trust are, proud of that. They showed themselves what is possible.

"Along with that quality of performance come expectations for the future, and we have those. As long as we perform well, those numbers will take care of themselves."

Is it pressure that brings out the best in Kansas City's roster?

"Yes and no. We showed that we perform well when we're under pressure and without it. We've had lesser games here when playing at home. The inconsistencies that we've had this year are something we are still working on," Gutierrez said. "The past week was a pretty good step towards going to where we want to go."

The numbers reveal that the Wizards side has lost 11 points at home in one loss and four ties - good enough for the fifth-best home winning percentage in MLS, but not enough for a side who is in such a tight situation.

A Friday night dousing of the Fire could go far in establishing the Wizards as masters of their Arrowhead domain as they will play at home for five of the remaining eight matches after this weekend, with a match against each of the teams still ahead of them in the conference table.

"It's a marathon, not a race - I think we all know that. It's going to be a matter of who's going to trip, who's going to lose a point here, a point there. There are a lot of crucial games coming up, so we're going to see what we're made out of," said Gutierrez.

A continuing high powered attack would serve the Wizards well. The suddenly fluent attack has forwards Josh Wolff and Scott Sealy and midfielders Sasha Victorine, Davy Arnaud and Klein contributing multiple goals and assists nearly every night.

With regular left back Jose Burciaga Jr. nursing a right knee complication and central midfielder Kerry Zavagnin hobbled by a right hamstring strain, Gansler has a rested Gutierrez, who has played only 30 minutes in the last three matches, to help keep the engine humming at full speed while past starter Alex Zotinca is nearing match readiness.

"We just need to continue to do the things we are doing. It's not one guy, and that's the important thing" said Klein. "We have a lot of weapons teams have to be aware of. When you do that, you don't let a team really just shut one thing down and shut the team down. We've get a lot of different weapons out there and we're trying to use them all."

Robert Rusert 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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