For the four remaining clubs in the MLS Playoffs, it has been a two-week whirlwind wrought with alternating tension, excitement, joy, near-depression for some and the one constant, pressure.
No team knows the feeling, and importance, of pressure better than the Kansas City Wizards.
Pressure must be applied, relieved, supplied and survived in order to succeed in the cutthroat nature of the quest for MLS Cup 2004.
Kerry Zavagnin, one of two rocks in the center of midfield for Kansas City, has had a scant six days to recover from a right hamstring strain suffered in the Wizards' storybook series come-from-behind 3-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes last Saturday night. Perhaps spurred on by his passion for the game and a love of pressure, Zavagnin will be ready for kickoff Friday night against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Arrowhead Stadium.
"I am going to start Friday. I'm not at 100% right now; the hamstring still is in the process of recovering," admitted the five-year MLS veteran. "It would be nice if we had an extra day, but unfortunately, we don't. I'm going to go out and give it my best effort and hopefully everything will turn out OK."
Zavagnin's fitness will be put to the test as he and his teammates plan on working tirelessly to make certain it is the Galaxy who is smothered by pressure in the Western Conference title bout. The intention is to stymie the Galaxy's entire attack, but most importantly, Jovan Kirovski and company's ability to consistently threaten the Wizards box with well-placed crosses.
"First and foremost, we need to put pressure on the ball further up the field, something that we did very well last weekend," Zavagnin said. "We didn't allow San Jose to play, which includes their backs.
"That's especially important, with L.A. and the way they want to spread the ball and get guys wide and utilize the whole field, that we get guys around the ball and get pressure on the ball as the ball does go deeper into their end of the field, that we keep pushing up and pushing guys up and under the ball."
In that San Jose match, 21 fouls were posted by the near-desperate Wizards as they took an aggressive posture against a team laden with talent similar to the Galaxy.
Zavagnin pointed to the Wizards abysmal performance a week before in a 2-0 loss at San Jose's Spartan Stadium as the genesis of the attitude.
"I think with the way that we came out in game one, the entire midfield, myself included, really didn't show up, so we wanted to establish some sort of aggressive mindset. If it requires fouling players unintentionally, then so be it," granted the 30 year-old. "But we needed to be hungry and be active and get around the ball. Sometimes fouls are going to happen, so we'll take some every now and then as long as we're getting after it."
No doubt all players on the field will be ready to get after it from the whistle Friday. What will make the difference in a match of two clubs that know each other intimately after playing four matches during the season?
Zavagnin discussed a mistake and a special moment from a player before settling on the determining factor.
"At this time of year, I know in years past, our crowd, whether we've had 20,000 or 8,000, gets pretty excited. And you can sense it on the field, what's on the line, and the fans that are there bring energy to the game," he said.
To accentuate the home-field advantage and to reward their fans, the Wizards are selling all seats in the house for $5 each. No matter the number of fans in attendance, Zavagnin will hear them.
"We're absolutely thrilled for the fact that we can have this game at Arrowhead. We've worked incredibly hard to ensure the fact that we had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and history shows that we're a tough team to beat," said Zavagnin alluding to the Wizards mark of seven wins in eight home playoff matches with Bob Gansler at the helm. "It's the home-field advantage that could make the difference [Friday] night."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.