September brings an interesting rehearsal for the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs for the Kansas City Wizards. Bob Gansler's team faces two home-and-home series, the first against the MetroStars beginning Saturday at the Meadowlands and the second against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the last two weekends of the month.
"It's exactly what we are going to have to do in another month, hopefully being in that first round and playing away and then playing at home. It also gives us an opportunity to do it both ways -- this weekend as if we were the higher seed and then against Los Angeles as if we were the lower seed," said midfielder Sasha Victorine. "But we are fighting for playoff positioning, so we also have to take those games separately and consider what we need from each game."
It bodes well that Victorine and his head coach agree it's that approach that will get the job done during the month-long coast-to-coast swing.
"For sure it lends itself to thinking it's the same team twice and that's how it will be in the playoffs - let's go to New York and get a result and come back to Kansas City and get another one," said Gansler. "Even without that aspect of it, both of those games are six-point swings. It counts double because it's what you get and what the other guys don't get. Basically we just try to take care of one 90-minute segment at a time."
Passing the audition by taking at least eight out of the 12 possible points could be good enough to put the Wizards on course for first place in the Eastern Conference -- and home-field advantage -- during their last three games in October when they host the Chicago Fire and the current leader New England Revolution.
While losing center back Jimmy Conrad and forward Scott Sealy to World Cup qualifying matches, forward Josh Wolff and Kerry Zavagnin weren't called in as expected to the U.S. national team and will be available for the MetroStars match.
"They never went [to camp]. You'll have to talk to them about the details. [I don't know what the arrangement is] when you are not totally fit going in," said Gansler, referring to Wolff's right upper rib contusion suffered against the Chicago Fire on Aug. 19 and Zavagnin's lingering right hamstring strain. "I'm sure they had dialogue with the coaches there and then either the coaching staff there or our players said, 'This is not a good time to go in.'"
In Sealy's absence, Wolff's striker partner up top is up for grabs, and Gansler tipped three main candidates for the job.
"We have Jack [Jewsbury] who has played there with him. We can put Davy [Arnaud] up there again -- that's a familiar duo. Ryan Pore showed some things as well. It could be one of those, it could be two of those, it could be all three that could see action there. We'll see how we can start strongest and how we can finish strongest," he said.
Lethargy at the start of last week's home 1-0 loss to the Columbus Crew doomed the Wizards as the failed to take control of the match. A repeat of that against the MetroStars would likely lead to a similar fate.
"[We need to] play with the energy we brought throughout most of the month of August. We brought a lot of energy to the games; I just think we need to get that back," said goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi. "Once we start doing that, things will start falling back in place like they have been pretty much all year."
The Wizards took 12 out of a possible 15 points in August, and training all week has been on just how to control the flow of a match.
"When you go on the road, the ball always becomes more valuable. That's what the home team, especially, uses for confidence; that's what gets the fans in -- when they have possession and they have the possibilities," Gansler said. "So we worked on doing a good job with the ball, keeping it better than we have in the last week. We had a hell of a month, but we just ran out of steam a little bit. So it's a matter of taking care of the ball and coming out with a good road version of us."
The high-aiming MetroStars, coming off a 3-3 tie with Chivas USA, trail the fourth-place Fire by six points in the battle for the last playoff slot in the rough and tumble Eastern Conference while the Wizards are in a second-place tie with D.C. United at 41 points each.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.