The Kansas City Wizards have said the right things as they have plodded through the first 16 matches of their 32-game regular season schedule, and have paid a lot of lip service to doing things on the field to make themselves more successful.
But now reality is beginning to come clear, and the Wizards are resolute in their mission for the second half of the season, which begins Saturday at RFK Stadium against a respected opponent they currently share third place with in the Eastern Conference standings, MLS Cup 2004 foes D.C. United.
"They're still the champs, no matter where they are in the standings, they haven't been dethroned. At the All-Star break last year, they weren't in first place, and, by the way, neither were we," said Wizards head man Bob Gansler. "It's not a matter of standings, it's not a matter of points - those things will take care of themselves.
"What we talked about [Tuesday] already was that this is the beginning of the second half [of the season]. And we need to play a better second half than we did a first half in terms of the quality of our performance. Only quality performances are going to lead to consistency, and then we'll get all our points."
Consistency is the key to success in any endeavor, and the Wizards have not been branded 'Steady Eddies' this season.
Kansas City began the 2005 season giving up an alarming amount of goals for any side, let alone the team whose defense routinely stymied opponents last season in leading MLS in goals against. Surrendering 10 goals in their first five contests was exactly double their rate of last season.
In the next 11, the Sky Blues returned to defensive normalcy, allowing only 11 goals.
Conversely, the attack was flying high early with 16 goals in the first seven games. Cooling off lately, the mostly counter-attacking side has tallied 10 goals in its last nine games.
But statistics are only symptoms of their modest 22 points in 16 matches through five wins and seven ties, even if they are as important as goals allowed and goals scored.
Thus Gansler and his players continue to address two specific difficulties that have plagued them in the first 16 contests -- playing a full 90-minute game and being a bit wiser.
In Monday night's 2-1 loss in Colorado, the Wizards seemed to have righted their habit of not coming to play in the first half.
"We said, 'Let's pretend this is the second half. Let's come out and play with that sense of urgency and commitment.' And we did," said Gansler of the 1-0 lead and one-man advantage K.C. took into the locker room at the break. "Unfortunately, we just watched the first 15 minutes of the second half -- that's when the game was determined."
Despite a halftime reminder, the Wizards got themselves into trouble in the second half.
"We continued to give them too many restarts. When you're defending restarts, it doesn't matter if the other team is playing with seven or they're playing with nine or with 11. They can dictate when they're going to play that ball. Obviously they executed, but I think we executed ourselves by the way we came out in the second half," Gansler said.
Midfielder Chris Klein looked back at the seven ties and four losses over the first half of the campaign with a sense of missed opportunities.
"There are times when you lose and you just get beat, and that's OK. But there have been times this year where we tied or lost where there were parts of the game we just didn't get it done," he said. "We have to correct that in the second half of the season."
The correcting will have to begin against a D.C. United team that has dealt the Wizards setbacks in their last three encounters -- a loss in the MLS Cup Final last year, then this year a scoreless tie in Kansas City and a 3-2 loss at RFK Stadium.
But a change in performance will not come if the team is not unified in their mission. The Wizards players showed their solidarity for a second-half revival by holding a brief, impromptu meeting at the end of training earlier in the week.
"That was just the guys getting together saying, 'Let's get off with a good start to the second half of the season.' This is important to us. We take a step back, and we look at it in chunks. We have one half of a season - we're at the top of that, trying to get over the hump," Klein said.
"As players, we need to get together, and some of the leaders on the team say, 'Hey guys, you know what, now is the time where we've got to step it up. We can't wait anymore until the last three weeks of the season to be playing well. We want to do it right now.'"
Wizards GM Curt Johnson was even more to the point when sizing up Saturday's contest and his club's current position.
"All of the Eastern Conference games are very important. In particular these games against D.C. United, the MetroStars, and all the teams we are looking up at," he said. "Bottom line is: that performance on Monday, if we roll that out often, we'll be looking on the outside in for the playoffs."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.