KANSAS CITY, Mo. - As the Kansas City Wizards prepare to play their second match in five days and their second against MLS Cup combatants D.C. United in two weeks, they hope Saturday's sloppy 3-2 win against Real Salt Lake flushed out any ugliness from their play.
From errors of commitment by Jose Burciaga Jr. and Shavar Thomas on Real's first goal to rookie Brian Roberts's failure to shut down fellow rookie Luke Kreamalmeyer's cross that led to the second score, the defensive snafus have led to a redoubling of efforts in the back heading into the United match.
"We've got to be cleaner on both ends of the ball. It was pretty evident we were pretty much in control of that game despite the couple of opportunities we fell asleep, relaxed, on," said Wizards assistant coach Brian Bliss.
"Against a better team - no disrespect to Salt Lake - you are going to pay dearly for those because you may give up those two, but they're certainly not going to give you three. We've got to be better on both ends of the ball, more so on the defensive end than the offensive end."
However, the lingering left rib injury to captain Diego Gutierrez, the yellow-card disciplinary suspension of left back Jose Burciaga Jr., and the return of reigning MLS MVP Jaime Moreno to the Black-and-Red's lineup may threaten Kansas City's desire for a tighter performance in the back.
Gutierrez's experience would serve his side well in dealing with the explosive attack of United, and he feels he should be good to go after being held out of Saturday's match.
"The rib itself is doing OK. There's not really that much you can do for it except give it time. But what happens is your back muscles start overcompensating and protecting it. So I've been having some back spasms and some stiffness," the Colombian native said. "But I anticipate they will dissipate before Wednesday, and we'll give it a go, hopefully."
Burciaga came into the last game in caution points peril, and his 83rd minute upending of Salt Lake rookie Jamie Watson, after a series of shoulder-to-shoulder clashes colored with a little mutual shoving and jawing, led to a yellow card that will keep the 23-year-old on the bench for Wednesday's match.
"My emotions got the best of me there," he said. "If I could take it back, I would. I've got faith in the team. We've got guys who can step up and play. Brian Roberts was a good example (last week)."
Whether Roberts gains a second successive start with Burciaga out or not is up in the air, as is what formation the Wizards will employ.
"We're looking at a couple different guys in [Burciaga's] role. We're confident with Roberts in that role. Dustin Branan, as well, can play back there. And if Alex [Zotinca] would happen to be healthy, he could be someone else we could plug in back there. So we've got some options," Bliss said.
"It could work just as well with Diego in there. If we decide to go four [on the back line], Diego is a likely candidate to go in the back and play that left side. If we go with three, he could step in the midfield and play next to Kerry. It will be a closer to game-time decision whether we go with three or four in the back."
Odds are the Wizards will come out in a 3-5-2 formation due to their success with it in D.C., but to whoever mans the heart of the midfield and the back line, the veteran-laden lineup of the defending MLS champion will likely not be as forgiving as Real's, especially with All-Star Christian Gomez, Freddy Adu, and Moreno pulling the strings for D.C.
Gomez is coming off a two-goal performance against San Jose Friday night, and Adu juked and jived through, around, and past the Wizards and their back three of Nick Garcia, Shavar Thomas, and Burciaga at times on June 9 at RFK Stadium. That was to no avail however as K.C. shutout United, stealing a 1-0 victory on a 77th-minute Sasha Victorine finish.
However, the most-feared Moreno sat out the encounter due to an ankle injury.
"It's going to be a different game. You are dealing with a player who is very important, a player that really generates a lot of their offense. The goals that Christian Gomez and [Santino] Quaranta and other guys score are usually originated by Jaime," Gutierrez said. "So he's not only a scoring threat, but he can be a set-up man. We'll definitely keep an eye on him."
Acclimating themselves to lineup adjustments and minimizing United's chances will all be key to victory for the Wizards, who can move to within four points of New England and five of Chicago in the Eastern Conference with a victory.
Bliss added that frequent and varied ball movement will help keep Moreno and company off the ball and enable the Wizards to create more opportunities. Kansas City fired 22 shots versus Real Salt Lake, but only three were converted. If that can be added to their play, the Wizards will set themselves up well to win the season series with D.C. (currently tied at one win, one loss, and one tie each) and the advantage that goes with it in the final standings in case of tie.
"If we're in a situation later on that we need points on our opponents in our conference, we don't have another chance to do it against these guys," Bliss said. "Hopefully we're not in that position, but we don't want to come down to the end of the year saying, 'I hope New England beats D.C., or I hope Colorado gets a point on D.C.' You want to be able to control that by taking control Wednesday."
Center back Nick Garcia adamantly and warningly set the tone.
"I don't think we are going to let ourselves get away with some of the stuff we allowed [Saturday]," he said. "Everybody [needs to pick up his game] offensively and defensively for us to come out on top."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.