Victory against the Los Angeles Galaxy at The Home Depot Center this Saturday would wrap up the coveted home-field advantage for Kansas City Wizards in the 2004 MLS Cup Playoffs and reward their season-long focus and preparedness.
"We have a goal and that is to clinch the conference, whether it's this week or next week or the following week, we need to win the conference. We don't have that much breathing room," said midfielder Diego Gutierrez.
And thus the tone is set for the Wizards heading into the gargantuan match against their deepest rival. Assuming the Galaxy have similar ambitions, this match should be a passionate display of tactical and technical execution, which fits with the Wizards' form of late.
"We've just seen Colorado, San Jose and Chicago in three games at home and gave up nine shots on goal; that's pretty impressive," said out-of-commission goalkeeper Tony Meola, who will not be making the trip to the West Coast. "A lot of times you have nine shots on goal in a game."
The Galaxy's attack contains formidable ingredients but has sputtered since Steve Sampson took over the coaching reins. Yet the Wizards aren't even concerned about the danger presented by Carlos Ruiz, Andreas Herzog and company.
"It's a matter of going out and playing your game. The last couple of times [in L.A.], we've gone out with a good mentality, willing to work the 90+ minutes, and we've come out with six points. I think that's going to be a key again," said Gutierrez. "Regardless of who they line up, what system they play, whatever they do, I think right now, especially at this point of the year, we have to focus on what we're doing."
The last two regular season meetings have been drama-filled heartbreakers that have turned on big plays and little mistakes. Case in point: the Wizards failure to clear an Herzog corner safely away from their box July 24 at Arrowhead, allowing the veteran midfielder to send in a second ball into the box that Jamaican international Tyrone Marshall headed home to tie the match in its closing moments at 2-2.
Gutierrez, who scored a theatrical 86th-minute game-winner in a 2-1 Wizards win in L.A. on June 5, emphasized the necessity of all teammates being ready to make plays when challenged.
"Guys who are not starting have to be ready to come off the bench. [The] last few games we've really had guys coming in and make a difference," he said. "Igor [Simutenkov] is the perfect example. But there's been other games, other people. Taylor Graham is one of the other guys that has stepped in and done a great job. It takes more than 11 guys to win, especially on the road."
If the Wizards have the lead late into the match, look for the 6-foot-4 Graham to enter the fray and tighten the defensive clamp the Wizards have used to strangle opponents' attacks. Graham filled the bill last Saturday against Colorado and in the Wizards win in the U.S. Open Cup Final on Sept. 22, and has learned to make sure he's not a blank observer when on the bench.
"I'm looking for tendencies of strikers or outside midfielders, especially if I'm going in at right back," said the second-year defender. "[That's] just so I have an idea of what they're looking to do when they get the ball, whether they like to come inside or outside. You definitely have to study your opponent so you're not surprised when you get out there."
There should be no surprise if this match lives up to the considerable stakes. A win achieves a season long goal for the Wizards and a win puts the Galaxy only two points shy of the Wizards with an Oct. 16 rematch at Arrowhead lurking.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.