The playoffs are a sink or swim, a do or die, an execute or be executed scenario, the type of scenario that certainly can rattle a lesser experienced player and even a steely veteran.
Bob Gansler is one of the most experienced coaches in Major League Soccer, the type of coach who knows how to prepare any sort of player for a pressure-filled situation such as playing against a respected opponent in their own backyard. That's what Gansler's Kansas City Wizards will face Sunday when they take on the defending MLS Cup champion San Jose Earthquakes.
"I said all along the title is going to go through San Jose. They're the defending champions -- they're good, they're proud," Gansler said.
So what does the Wizards boss think will lead to success for his relatively young, but accomplished, side in the 2004 MLS Cup Playoffs?
"It's all about your concentration level," Gansler said. "By now you either know you can play or you know you can't play. And, obviously, we can play -- our individuals can play, and we've played well as a team. As a unit we have a right to be confident, certainly not arrogant, but confident that we can play."
Throughout 30 regular season games, plus the U.S. Open Cup matches, the Wizards have built their confidence by winning the most games in the league, 18 in all competitions (14 in league play). A remarkable 10 of those wins were by the score of 1-0 and a total of 12 by one goal, a margin that demands intense concentration.
"And you go into the playoff scenario and it's not like unchartered waters -- you've been there before because this is Game 6 against San Jose, so there should be no surprises. The only way you're going to be surprised is if you're not paying attention," said Gansler.
"But at the same time you've got to execute. These are going to be tight games and mistakes will be punished, so you've got to be ready to cut down your errors."
One area where the defensively near-flawless Wizards can be faulted lately is in their failure to provide themselves with a bit of room for error. The second goal, the nail in the coffin for the opponents, has eluded the attack, a point not lost on striker Josh Wolff after Kansas City's 1-0 victory against the Los Angeles Galaxy last Saturday.
"One goal's held up for us in many games, but we had an opportunity to get a couple (against L.A.)," said Wolff. "I think, for me, I didn't put the final pass in the right weight and the right spot sometimes. We've got to get better at that."
When mistakes are made, Gansler makes sure his charges know how to handle them.
"But at the same time, it is a game of mistakes. So you've got to play through them and not let them throw you totally off course," he said. "So, now we've come from [concentration to] confidence to composure. We're all fallible -- screw-ups will occur."
Concentrating, being confident, and staying composed are staples of a successful team or individual in any sport. Often, however, it is the last word in Gansler's formula that makes the ultimate difference.
"[The playoff atmosphere] brings out the better competitors, and I think we're pretty good at that," he said.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.