By the end of their two road matches this week, the Kansas City Wizards should have a clearer picture of the team's identity.
The Wizards will finish the first third of the season with a coast-to-coast swing, facing Chivas USA on Wednesday in California, then heading to the East Coast to take on the New England Revolution on Saturday. Having outscored their opponents 8-3 in their last four games, the Wizards have made themselves winners in three of their last four contests. But the Wizards have yet to fully claim consistency and their true identity.
Are the 2005 Wizards the team who has allowed an exorbitant amount of goals this season as a whole and thus bounce from good performance to poor performance, or are they the team that has shut out their last two opponents?
A year ago, the Wizards had three wins, four losses and two ties through nine matches. However, the next two games were wins that sent the eventual Western Conference champions on their way to a nine-game undefeated streak in which they allowed only eight goals, empowering their run to the title.
"You can't compare last year to this year -- it's two different teams, two different seasons. We can only learn from [the goals we've allowed]," said left back Jose Burciaga Jr. "We still have the majority [of the same players] here, but it's going to take time.
Kansas City head coach Bob Gansler concurred.
"You're never the same. The same people a month later, the same people a season later, it's not the same thing. You've got to carry [over] those mundane little duties physically, but even more so mentally," said Gansler. "On a daily basis, you have to rehearse a little.
"And in a game you've got to do it from start to finish and not be led astray by your own success, maybe on the other end of the field, that now the game is won, it's over, now we can put it in cruise control and relax a little bit," he said. "The next thing we know, somebody's running by me or the ball is whizzing by my foot when all I needed to do was extend it a little bit. The guys have reacted well, and we trust we can keep it going.
The team's recent resurgence has been promoted by a closer attention to what the Wizards were known for last season -- a stingy defense and an opportune attack. The 2004 team won eight matches by the score of 1-0.
"There hasn't been a change in approach. We've approached every single game with the seriousness and the intensity it deserves, but as it happens early in the season for a lot of teams, you have to find your rhythm and you have to find your way," said midfielder and team captain Diego Gutierrez. "It's taken a bit of the season for us to realize what it actually takes for us to win games and to win games close. In the last couple days we've found something that we hadn't found earlier and that's little things and staying concentrated for 90 minutes to get a result."
The Wizards will need all the concentration they can muster as they prepare to take on a Chivas USA team determined to right their own ship. Even though the expansion club has been mostly hapless, there is no danger of the Wizards being overconfident.
"We just watched some of the Chivas-Galaxy game from last weekend, and if the guys had any thoughts about not being concentrated and focused, that should have knocked it out of them because Chivas could have just as well been leading at half or after 60 minutes as the Galaxy," Gansler said. "They come at you hell-bent ... with a lot of numbers and a lot of risks, sort of a storming the Bastille kind of thing. We've got to be ready for that. I trust that we're not fools because we would be fools if we would take this lightly.
The Wizards have developed a more formidable attack this season that has been at the top of the league much of the season. Dependable -- and sometimes spectacular -- forwards Davy Arnaud and Josh Wolff have been bolstered by midfielder Chris Klein, who has returned from knee surgery stronger than ever; rookie Scott Sealy, who has recently filled in for Wolff admirably and scored two goals this season; and midfielders Jack Jewsbury and newcomer Sasha Victorine, who together have contributed four goals and two assists.
And this coast-to-coast road swing, culminating with what could be a matchup of the first- and second-place teams in the Eastern Conference on Saturday in New England, will be an indication if Kansas City is a true contender for the conference title or a side still struggling to mark their season with an identifiable consistency.
"I think [our team identity is] starting to show now," said Burciaga. "[We're] going on the road hoping we can get six points, four at [least], so we'll be good come June 11 when New England comes here."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval for Major League Soccer or its clubs.