Technically, the Major League Soccer playoffs begin next weekend. But to the Kansas City Wizards, this Saturday's home meeting with the Los Angeles Galaxy brings every bit of the importance and the intensity of a playoff game.
Holding a three-point lead over the Galaxy for the top spot in the Western Conference and the accompanying -- and coveted -- home-field advantage leading up to MLS Cup 2004, the Wizards are reassured by having their fate in their own hands.
"There's probably more pressure on them to try and get the top spot. We just have to go out there and play and do well," said defender Nick Garcia.
The Wizards need only avoid losing by more than one goal to secure the top spot in the West. But doing well will likely require more from the Wizards offensively than the less than a goal a game rate they have produced in their last 10 games.
Most goal-scoring opportunities in that stretch have been results of the fast passing and combining that the Wizards have excelled at in the open field all season. Very few have come off well-executed set pieces -- opportunities that almost always make the difference in any match.
"Davy [Arnaud] and Josh [Wolff] are a force to be reckoned with, but we are due for a set piece [goal]," said center back Jimmy Conrad, who scored four goals last year, most via dead ball scenarios.
"Last year, Preki was the service. Now the service is good, except it's coming from different guys, so it's just kind of a different style of when it's coming in, the pace on it," Conrad said. "It's a little harder to read. When I look back [at last year], I kind of knew it was going to come in the same way every time. And it was just kind of up to me to get to that spot. Just the consistency of who's hitting the ball is probably the biggest thing."
A timely strike off a set piece could enable the Wizards to turn the tables on the Galaxy, who dominated most of the last meeting between the teams two weeks ago in Los Angeles. An overwhelming Galaxy attack had the Wizards pinned in their own end with little room to breathe in the first half. Only Bo Oshoniyi's save of a Carlos Ruiz penalty attempt early in the first half and a never-say-die attitude kept the Wizards in the match that they were able to tie in the waning moments.
That Wizards equalizer was just another one in a series of late-game goals this season that have added to the deepening rivalry between the two clubs, a rivalry that has occasionally boiled over.
In the 73rd minute of L.A.'s last visit to Arrowhead Stadium, Conrad and tenacious Galaxy striker Carlos Ruiz were at the center of an especially intense scuffle that quickly spread to most of the other 22 players on the field. The main bout featured two heated verbal exchanges, gesticulations, and several bumps. Both players were fortunate not to see red.
Garcia, too, has had his share of encounters with the antic-prone Ruiz. "I think it's just the intensity of the game," he said. "We always play each other well. Tempers flare, things are said, things are done. It's all part of the game."
A larger than normal crowd is expected for Saturday's match, which will add to the heavy atmosphere that could again ignite. Conrad knows the key to maintaining order for the Wizards will be to make the Galaxy's attack predictable. However, he is wary of L.A.'s recent resurgence and Jovan Kirovski's role in it.
"Kirovski has freedom under Sampson's system to drop in mid, be up high, all over the place," Conrad said.
Kirovski put in both goals against the Dallas Burn last weekend in the Galaxy's 2-0 victory. Garcia agreed that Kirovski poses a challenge, but one the Wizards can handle.
"Kirovski is the kind of guy who plays a definite attacking midfielder, second-forward type of role, and he is tricky to pick up. I think Hristo Stoitchkov, at times, did that for Chicago," Garcia said. "So I think we're comfortable with that. We just have to pay more attention to it; we can't let our guard down."
The Wizards will be aiming to grasp the reins of the match from the outset and maintain a hold on their playoff fate in a battle that will replicate what is to come for both sides in one week's time.
"We all understand the importance of this game, more or less a preparation for the playoffs," said Garcia. "That's what we're using it for, not only our last league game, but a tune up before the playoffs begin."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Soccer or its clubs.