Diego Gutierrez

Diego's day might come soon

called the "Wiz" back then, in case you forgot -- there was Mike Sorber and Preki to contend with, as well as Frank Klopas who could play as an attacking midfielder and Matt McKeon, who was a defensive midfield "destroyer" in every sense of the word.

"Ron Newman felt that with my speed and fitness that I could play on the left side in a 3-5-2," said Gutierrez of his first professional coach.

That begun a string of moves to different positions for Gutierrez over the next several years, which has seen him play as a left-sided midfielder, left back, center back and center midfielder.

"I even played sweeper last year," he said, somewhat flabbergasted by his own versatility. "I've definitely seen a lot of the field in my time, sure."

After playing in Chicago for Bob Bradley for four years, he returned to Kansas City, which is not only where his career began, but also where he went to college and the city his family settled in one year after moving to the USA from his native Colombia. Initially, Gansler liked him as a left back, the position he experienced the most success with while with Chicago.

"Bob felt at the time that I could make life difficult for all the right wingers in the league with my speed," he said. "Since that position is stocked with talent in MLS, Bob said he needed someone who battles. And that's really how I've made my living in this league."

Even though he logged a lot of minutes as a left back in 2002 and 2003, Gutierrez was still moved around like a utility infielder. Always plugging holes, rather than finding a home. And it's surely not the way to get noticed by Arena. But he moved from position to position without a peep, doing whatever he had to do to help the club.

"The guy is selfless," said Wizards assistant coach Brian Bliss. "If we need to put him in the back to shut someone down, he'll do it. If we need him to get out on the flank and add to the attack, he'll do it. He's team first no matter what, and that's why everyone on this team respects him."

While his teammates have looked to him in the past both on and off the field, as he's as easy-going and family-oriented away from soccer as he is fierce and competitive between the lines, it really wasn't until this past year when he was in a position of leadership in the middle of the field. Not having Preki due to a broken ankle forced Gansler to switch up the lineup, which resulted in a midfield partnership between Gutierrez and Kerry Zavagnin that is among the best in MLS and was one of the prime reasons the Wizards won the Western Conference title.

"We knew that he had the soccer intelligence to play there and that he can be a two-way player," says Bliss. "But what we really liked was how he could excel when sitting in the hole in front of the backs to limit a guy like Landon Donovan from getting looks. That's where he really made his mark this year."

Gutierrez not only made life difficult for opposing team's attacking midfielders and playmakers, but he also was a key figure in the team's counterattacking, often started the attack with a quick pass before sprinting up the field to achieve a numerical advantage. In 28 matches, he scored three goals and added four assists for 10 points, which was actually good enough to finish fourth on the team in scoring. In addition, Gutierrez was the one handed the captain's armband when Tony Meola went down with an injured Achilles tendon at the end of the summer.

Gutierrez can't help but laugh when people ask him how he all of a sudden blossomed into one of the better players in the league and is being hailed as the Most Valuable Player for the Wizards.

"It's all about being healthy, really," he says. "I attribute my success to not having nagging injuries like I have in the past. The past two years I've been injury-free and have been able to play like I am capable of, rather than chasing the season because of injuries and never feeling 100 percent ready to play.

"I put in a good preseason this year -- better than the past -- and it showed in my play, as well. The only games I missed this year were due to suspension, not injuries, so I've been blessed."

His strong play earned him an inclusion in Arena's initial pool of 38 players for the final semifinal round qualifier against Jamaica two weeks ago. But due to MLS Cup, his name along with four other of his teammates was taken off the list. He's hoping that he'll get a shot during the final round of qualifying that starts for the U.S. on Feb. 9 down in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, against the host nation's Soca Warriors.

"It's definitely a goal of mine," says Gutierrez. "Even though I only played in one match, I was in most every camp for a year-and-a-half before the last World Cup. I felt I was one of the candidates for left back only seven months before the World Cup. But then I got injured and I never got another call."

Bliss believes it's time Gutierrez gets another look by Arena.

"He has definitely done enough this season to be a candidate," he says. "He's a player that Bruce could only enjoy having in camp because he's someone that has a heart of a lion and will always check his ego at the door when it's time to play."

Perhaps that will happen in 2005. In the meantime, Gutierrez is excited about his new contract with MLS that will allow him to stay on the Wizards for the next several years. While his contract was signed before MLS Cup, it was announced three days after the Wizards lost to D.C. United at the HDC.

"This is a great opportunity for me to end my career where I started and basically come full circle," says Gutierrez. "I appreciate the opportunity that Curt (Johnson) and the coaching staff has given me and I intend to take this time to hopefully bring more championships to Kansas City. There is no other place I would rather be playing."

Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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