A seemingly different Kansas City Wizards team was on display at Arrowhead Stadium Wednesday evening in their mostly dominating 1-0 victory over the visiting MetroStars.
This model was nearly ideal in the intangibles of calculated tackles, timely step-ups into space to intercept opponent's passes, and a more balanced attack. The team seemed as one, more stable.
Perhaps "ideal" is somewhat hyperbolic. And perhaps it was just a coincidence the mature performance came on the same night Wizards captain Diego Gutierrez returned to the starting lineup after a three-match absence due to the removal of a bone spur and a repair of slight tear to his meniscus in his left knee.
Or perhaps not.
Wizards head coach Bob Gansler knows what Gutierrez brings to the team and the all-important center midfield position.
"He brings stability. He's a two-way player; he sets an example in terms of the defensive end of things, in terms of waiting and winning tackles, and then he sets an offensive tone too," Gansler said before detailing his point. "One of the things we did incorrectly in D.C. was, it was one and out. We'd make one pass or two and we were out. With Diego in there, he helps to shore up that end of things."
Even though the Wizards began the match less than sharp in their ball movement and ability to link up on long balls, they persisted, something Gutierrez exhibits daily. His desire was clear before the match as he pushed himself to return one and a half weeks before the expected four weeks recovery time after surgery on the left knee, his preferred leg.
When the contest hit halftime, the Wizards had still not taken control on the scoreboard despite controlling much of the ball. Yet they, and Gutierrez, kept working to finish out the match, despite some stumbling blocks.
"[The knee] felt great. I'm actually surprised I was able to go 90 minutes. I didn't feel that I was going to be able to at halftime, but I got my second wind halfway through the second half and was able to finish."
When the Davy Arnaud scored to put the Wizards in the driver's seat, the Wizards were prepared to exorcise a demon that has possessed them nearly all season -- giving up leads. Gutierrez and the rest of Wizards had seen too much of that, even on the day, to allow their enthusiasm and vigor to wilt to the increased pressured put on by the MetroStars.
"As in an earlier game today, a team might have a 3-0 advantage and end up losing the game. Once you get the advantage, you've got to keep it," said Gutierrez, alluding to AC Milan's failure in the UEFA Champions' league title game to hold their lead against Liverpool just a few hours earlier. When asked if Gutierrez also brought some fire to the squad, Gansler replied in the affirmative.
"Yeah, that's where he came from, no pun intended," he said, referring to Gutierrez's time with the Chicago Fire. "Diego is an aggressive kind of individual and that's mentally aggressive and physically aggressive."
Barring an exaggerated reaction to playing a full 90 minutes in his first game back, Gutierrez and his repaired knee will be in the lineup again come Saturday's encounter with former conference rival the San Jose Earthquakes.
The two sides met on April 23 in a contest in which the Wizards led twice but eventually succumbed in a 3-2 loss at San Jose.
Thus the Wizards will have a chance to right another wrong by not relenting any lead they may gain and by proving their performance Wednesday was not a cosmetic illusion.
Surely Gutierrez will be at the fore of the Wizards' charge, and according to Gansler, one can't ask for more.
"He's the consummate pro. He brings leadership and confidence to everyone around him," extolled Gansler. "And technically he's a very good player. He should have been in the [MLS Best] XI of last year. Whoever does that voting needs new glasses."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.