Since last Sunday night, the Kansas City Wizards had stared a mountain in the face. If they were going to continue on in the Major League Soccer playoffs, they would have to defeat the defending MLS champion San Jose Earthquakes by three goals.
Never mind that the Wizards have rarely beaten San Jose in Kansas City or that it had been since July 3 that they had scored at least three goals in a league contest.
"We knew what we had to do -- that's, I think, the advantage to [hosting] a second leg of a two-game series," center back Jimmy Conrad said. "You work out, over a week, a set game plan. I thought we followed it to a T."
The Wizards plan revolved around upping their physical presence through stature, especially up front, and denying the Earthquakes main threat in Landon Donovan.
Conrad and his comrades on the backline -- Nick Garcia, Jose Burciaga Jr., and Alex Zotinca -- save for a few mistakes made it a frustrating evening for the visitors.
"Donovan had a good chance early, and Ching had a good chance. To be honest, I think both were on our giveaways. If we had limited the giveaways we had I don't think they would have had any serious chances," Conrad said.
Donovan had scored two goals against the Wizards at Arrowhead Stadium back on Aug. 14 and the Wizards have made it a point to be cognizant of the explosive attacker ever since.
"I thought we did a good job of forcing the play, getting the ball off of Landon's feet early and making him give it to somebody else. We don't want Landon to beat us; he's done that in the past. So if we're going to drop a goal, we're going to make someone else do it," Conrad said.
The Wizards had the answer for Donovan, but the Quakes did not have one for Bob Gansler's insertion of Jamaican international Khari Stephenson into the starting lineup as a target forward to work with stalwarts Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud.
"They manhandled us out there [in San Jose] and we needed some size," said Gansler of the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Stephenson. "We decided instead of playing him wide, to play him in the middle."
The strategy was helped by the work rate of midfielder Jack Jewsbury and the enthusiasm of Arnaud as he ran continually at the San Jose defense and to loose balls.
In the 26th minute, Arnaud had possession deep in the right corner of the Quakes box. Too deep and too closely marked, Arnaud played back to Jewsbury who kept the poor pass alive by sliding a foot in to get it to Stephenson. The first year player created space in front of three defenders and struck home with a shot that beat Quakes 'keeper Pat Onstad to the right.
"I got my first start, and I tried to make use of it. I've just been patiently waiting on my time," Stephenson said.
After Stephenson's strike, time was aplenty for the Wizards, a team that has rarely let an opportunity escape all year.
Pressuring the San Jose defense and not breaking themselves, the Wizards forced a mistake in the Quakes area after a corner for the second goal as Alex Zotinca played a ball into the box for Conrad.
"Alex put a good ball in a good spot, and I pressured Ching," Conrad said. "He tried to swing and hit it, and it went off the outside of his foot and in."
The fortuitous 48th-minute goal came at the best of times for the Wizards as they had 42 more minutes to get a third goal and avoid an extra time period.
Leaving the matter open until two minutes into stoppage time, Jewsbury -- a frequent hero all season -- hit a curling ball off a pass from super-sub Igor Simutenkov off the left post of the San Jose goal to send he and his teammates on to the next round of the playoffs, a feat not many thought would happen.
"They're a marvelous bunch. You look at our individual parts and you say we can't, but we can," said Gansler. "Whatever we've done this year we deserve. This group has been collectively, as good as a team as I've had. By that I mean they get the most out of themselves and each other and find a way to win. It was a big hole, but they knew that there was some daylight there."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.