The Kansas City Wizards allowed only 30 goals during the regular MLS season, and then they shut out two of the most feared offenses in MLS in the San Jose Earthquakes and Los Angeles Galaxy in the playoffs through tenacious man-marking, gritty physical play and perceptive positioning.
If D.C. United is going to beat the Wizards in MLS Cup 2004, they will have to score, but it's not going to be easy.
The key to the Wizards lack of benevolence comes from their orchestrations as a whole throughout the field, beginning in the middle with their center midfielders and backs.
"As long as we can communicate and say, 'Hey, this guy's taken care of -- pick up that guy,' I think we'll be all right," said veteran center back Nick Garcia on Saturday.
Garcia's partner in patrolling the Wizards rearguard is Jimmy Conrad, who was acquired by the Wizards prior to the 2003 season from the Earthquakes where he won an MLS winners' medal in 2001. The 2004 Defender of the Year finalist has done all he's been asked this season and more.
"I do a lot of the talking in terms of sorting everybody out and organizing, but everybody plays their part," he said. "Communication is probably the biggest part of defense, just trying to get everybody in the right position. I don't have to do too much with [center midfielders] Diego [Gutierrez] and Kerry [Zavagnin], they're just naturally in good spots. That makes it easy for Nick and I to read plays."
Midfielders Gutierrez and Zavagnin present a formidable barrier to opposing offenses who want to try their luck against Conrad, Garcia and fullbacks Alez Zotinca and Jose Burciaga Jr.
As captain, Gutierrez has performed excellently all season, as has Zavagnin. Both are possible RadioShack Best XI picks and both have current and future possibilities with the U.S. national team. Zavagnin has been a mainstay in recent World Cup qualification and Gutierrez was asked in for the upcoming match in Jamaica but is unable to play due to Sunday's Cup Final.
Zavagnin, who has recovered from a slight hamstring strain suffered against San Jose in the first playoff match, knows the Wizards defensive reputation will be tested by D.C. United forward Jaime Moreno.
"[Moreno is] a similar guy to [Earthquakes forward] Landon Donovan, not a true striker. He comes off the ball a lot and into the midfield," he said. "Communication is going to be key, and not getting out of our shape, and our discipline is going to be key. [We'll need to make sure] we're passing guys on because they're so mobile, and they're sending their defensive midfielder through, they're sending their outside midfielder through."
Moreno's companion up front is second-year striker Alecko Eskandarian, and he, along with center midfielder Ben Olsen and left-sided midfielder Dema Kovalenko bring a strong degree of physical play and sturdiness to the D.C. arsenal.
The Wizards will have to match the physicality while not giving away free kicks near the penalty area -- a danger Kansas City faced in the playoffs against San Jose's Brian Ching and Los Angeles's Carlos Ruiz.
"I give the comparison of L.A. and San Jose," said Garcia. "I think if you look at those three games that we just played, I think you have the mobility factor, you have the free kick factor, and the overall team factor. I don't think we could be much better prepared than we are now having played the games we've just played."
The Wizards will have their hands full with the bevy of dangers presented by United's starters. Can they then handle the fresh, young and skillful influx that 15-year-old Freddy Adu will throw at them likely late in the match?
Garcia is confident that they will, adding that any increased push forward by D.C. United will leave them open to counter strikes.
"I think if that happens, I think it's going to open up things over the top for us. Trying to throw more offensive guys will give us an opportunity to exploit their defense a little bit more," he said.
Likely starting goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi summed up the Wizards defensive mission, one they are prepared for and willing to accept.
"Basically, just keeping them off the scoreboard early [is the key]. I think we're going to face a lot of pressure defensively from them. They're going to come at us with a lot of numbers, and I think we have to weather that, and then look to get at them," he said.
Robert Rusert is a contirbutor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.