The Kansas City Wizards have been near the top of the league longer than any other club in Major League Soccer all season -- an accomplishment to be proud of, for sure. Yet for a team that is aiming for the ultimate achievement -- MLS Cup 2004 -- they have squandered multiple opportunities to score a more favorable position heading into the dogfight that will consume the Western Conference over the last month of the season.
On July 24, the Wizards had their first direct opportunity to take over first place in the West as they faced the ruling Los Angeles Galaxy at home. Victory was not Kansas City's that night and it was six more weeks of opportunities before the Wizards could stake claim to No. 1 in the West on September 4.
Likewise, the ability of the Wizards to put away goal-scoring opportunities has been lacking of late. Six goals in six games -- four games with only one goal scored -- is a marked decrease from a previous strike rate of nearly 1.5 goals per game.
Statistics. Lies, or damn lies?
"I don't think it is especially a cause for concern," said Davy Arnaud, joint third in the Major League Soccer scoring table with nine goals and seven assists. "We're still getting chances, creating opportunities."
Point taken. Yes, the Wizards are creating opportunities, but there is a reason goal scorers are adored universally.
Maybe the problem is confidence. Goal scorers usually exude confidence; the type of confidence that comes when you ripple the opponent's net, something strike partner Josh Wolff was able to do in the eighth minute against Colorado's Joe Cannon last Friday night, putting the Wizards up 1-0.
"We played really well up to giving up the first goal that they scored, their PK," Arnaud said. "And I don't know what it was; the confidence dropped a little bit after giving up that goal. We came in at halftime tied and felt we could have gone out and won it. And again we had chances."
Some could argue that the Wizards counterattacking style of play relies too heavily on its attackers being opportunistic.
"We break out and look to go quick at teams. I think we have the confidence to do that," said Arnaud. "It's not going to be successful every time you go down the field; that's the way it is. But I think if you create and take advantage of a couple of those opportunities it's going to work. I don't think it's something we're going to go away from. It's something that's been working for us all year."
So despite a number of prolonged injuries to gifted attacking players like Chris Klein, Preki and Igor Simutenkov, the Wizards are not likely to change anything that would affect their rhythm on the offensive end.
Another potential weapon in Bob Gansler's arsenal who is again healthy is Alex Zotinca. Before his suspension when sent off for a challenge on Chicago Fire defender C.J. Brown on Sept. 1 at Soldier Field -- then extended to two matches -- Zotinca was taking to the wide right midfield position rather well, creating and getting on the end of numerous chances.
"I kind of like it there [wide midfield]. I can see the field; I enjoy the position. I always like to go forward," said the 27-year-old Zotinca, recalling his days as a professional indoor soccer player in Kansas City. "I have more confidence now to go forward; if I lose it I have somebody behind me to cover me."
With the versatile Simutenkov still slowed by a hamstring strain, Zotinca, Arnaud, and the rest of the Wizards will have to act fast to put the Wizards in the best position to fulfill their goal.
Only three home and two away games remain for Kansas City in the Western Conference battle -- but they are all within the conference, beginning with another vital clash against San Jose at Arrowhead Stadium this weekend, where the Wizards must once capitalize on their opportunities.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.