the drum solo.
Oh yeah, the point: When you're up the proverbial creek without a paddle, try swimming. Get back to basics. Go back to the beginning, as Vizzini told Inigo Montoya. Remember the fundamentals and you'll make it through the hard times. (Wow, do I sound like a poor man's Tony Robbins?)
Which helps explain why the Preki-less Kansas City Wizards are more than holding their own, especially on defense. They've only allowed merely one goal in four games, even though last week, with Nick Garcia out injured, the starting backline consisted of a four run-of-the-mill utility men, which was reduced to three run-of-the-mill utility men following Jose Burciaga's red card. (What exactly was he thinking jumping in wildly like that?)
"If you look down our roster, it's nothing spectacular, except maybe for Wolffy [Josh Wolff] and [Chris] Klein," Wiz midfielder Kerry Zavagnin admitted to me yesterday. "But it's a sum of the parts thing. That's the recipe for success in this league. Look at San Jose in 2001. No household names. They just worked hard in a 4-4-2. More often than not, that's going to win in this league."
Going into the season, the parts lined up pretty much the same way they did last year: Preki, Igor/Wolff, and eight guys trying to stop the other team from scoring. Wizards games promised plenty of goals -- for and against, like 5-2 victories and 4-3 losses. If anything, it was going to be fun, though all the purists would probably get their knickers in a twist. Of course, we all know purists are annoying prudes who think music starts and ends with "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."
But then Preki went down. And Igor went down. And everything changed.
No one will really admit it outright, but it's not that hard to figure out: Without Preki, the Wiz can actually play team defense. Coach Bob Gansler can field a more traditional formation, less prone to the midfield holes that Preki often leaves behind when he's upfield doing that crazy thing that Preki does.
Don't get me wrong, I'll take the tradeoff -- Preki's points vs. holes in the midfield -- any day, but as the old defense-wins-championships cliché goes, so go the Wiz. (They will always be the Wiz to me. It just puts a smile on my face to think of Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson, when he was still human, playing the scarecrow.)
"As opposed to other years, we have a set formation, a 4-4-2," Zavagnin explained. "Right now, we have the luxury of playing a 4-4-2, and I think the personnel we have are more comfortable with that formation."
KZ has been around this league long enough to know what's what. Following his terrific 2003 season and his recent national team appearance (finally, another Michigander sports the Stars and Stripes!), he's stepped up to be one of the team's on-field leaders. He controls the midfield and does all the dirty work, setting things up for Klein and Diego Gutierrez on the flanks.
Behind him, Jimmy Conrad moved to center back this season and is finally becoming the monster many of us imagined lurked inside him. He's patrolling the center of defense like a tight end. The addition of Shavar Thomas from Dallas has also helped shore things up. The other kids, Jose Burciaga and Alex Zotinca, are coming into their own under the tutelage of the "vets". (Garcia has four years in the league, Conrad five. Is it me or does MLS remind everyone of Menudo? Once you hit 25, you're considered a grizzled veteran, kicked to the bench in favor of the next Golden Child.)
And behind Jimmy is the foundation for it all, Tony Meola. In the past, he's had a reputation for getting down on guys very quickly and not being afraid of a little finger-pointing. So far this year, he seems to be staying positive and urging on his Four Horsemen like a true leader.
"All those zeroes [shutouts] are a credit to Jimmy and Tony," Klein said. "They all figured out the system, the formula, and that's been key."
Back to basics, people, back to basics. It works for over-the-hill rock 'n' rollers. It works for under-the-radar back fours. It can work for you. For just five easy installments of $69.99, I'll show you how ...
* * *
Two mortal locks this week: 1) Considering I picked a tie last week, and was right, I'm going to do it again. It's like rolling dice in Vegas. Colorado-New England: Tie. 2) I'll buy myself down a beer later tonight at the Brides of Destruction show (the return of Nikki Sixx and Tracii Guns) in honor of suds-lover Eric Wynalda, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame yesterday. Bottoms up!
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.