When the Kansas City Wizards head to Spartan Stadium to face the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday evening, the stage could be set for another memorable match between the two rivals.
Over the past few years, the teams have met in some weighty circumstances -- a U.S. Open Cup semifinal and Western Conference Semifinal series last year, the Western Conference Final in 2003. But despite the subdued implications this year, the teams have scored -- and allowed -- a combined total of 11 goals each in their five matches this season.
Also, it will be a Wizards team looking to maintain their unbeaten start to the campaign, with a win and a draw in their first two games, while facing a hungry San Jose squad (winless at 0-1-2) in the tight confines of Spartan Stadium that will test a Wizards team striving for perfection.
"San Jose always has a high energy kind of game. They're extremely aggressive in the way they defend, they're extremely aggressive in the way they attack," Wizards coach Bob Gansler said. "Because of the close confines, it's always a transition game because you are a pass away from another shot. If you turn them over or they turn you over, they might be able to shoot immediately. You've got to be ready to play transition, up-tempo soccer when you play San Jose, especially at their place."
Despite a change in personnel through the exits of Landon Donovan and veteran midfielders Ronnie Ekelund and Richard Mulrooney, a trio at the core of their two MLS Cup titles, the Quakes have shown a combustible offense as forward Brian Ching, returning forward Ronald Cerritos, and midfield newcomer Brad Davis have ignited the attack.
Davis, the 24-year-old dead-ball threat, has teamed with two new Quakes in 22-year-old Ricardo Clark and rookie Danny O'Rourke to form a youthful midfield that is naturally placed into frequent physically and skillfully challenging encounters due to Spartan Stadium's intimate playing area.
Wizards central midfielder Kerry Zavagnin respects the Quakes, new and old, and is unsure if the more experienced Wizards will have an advantage in the midfield where the match may be won.
"Every game you go into in this league, whether they are young guys or experienced players, they are good. Any time you let your guard down or you think you have an advantage, and you sit back, players are going to take advantage of you. That's the challenge of this league, and that's the challenge in San Jose," said Zavagnin.
"You can say they're young, you can say they're new to the team, but they're going to battle. If we don't come with our arsenal, we're not going to be successful. The fact that Diego [Gutierrez] and I have played together in the middle for over a year now will maybe give us a slight advantage, but only if we bring the right attitude."
After a mostly successful start to the season, the Wizards workman-like attitude is strong as ever.
"We strive for perfection," said wide midfielder Chris Klein. "We do a lot of things right, but we can, on the whole, improve on some things."
Specifically, Kansas City desires to cut down on the amount of opportunities they've allowed their opponents in order to stave off more occurrences of untimely goals that have plagued their defense thus far.
"I see a lot of good things in terms of what we put together the first two games. [We] got a win and a tie on the road, and we move quickly and won't be complacent about anything," said Gansler. "We're good enough, we can be good enough to win any game this year, and that's the mindset we have to have, but we've got to have it for 90-plus minutes."
A confident focus for an entire match on the road against a determined side on an intimate pitch is a tall order for any team. Odds are the Wizards and the host Quakes will blink at some time, perhaps repeatedly, which will either lead to a toe-to-toe staredown or a shootout.
"Soccer is a game where the team that makes less mistakes wins," Gansler said. "There are always going to be mistakes. We're looking for perfection, but it's the less flawed effort that is going to come out on top."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.