The Kansas City Wizards have won two honors this season -- the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the top seed in the Western Conference. They represent two of the three goals the Wizards had designs upon before the season began -- which began badly with serious injuries to 2003 Honda MLS Most Valuable Player Preki and their second-leading scorer, Russian-born Igor Simutenkov.
Overcoming more injuries, the Wizards had a storybook regular season gaining the two titles. Now however, the Wizards are on the verge of missing out on a chance at the crown jewel as they trail the San Jose Earthquakes 2-0 in the aggregate goal, two-game 2004 MLS Cup Western Conference Semifinal series.
"MLS Cup is the biggest thing on our schedule. It's what you focus on in the preseason, what you make your roster moves for, to gear up to win a league title. That's what everybody plays for," said Diego Gutierrez.
"If we didn't win it, would it be a failure of a year? I don't think so. There are a lot of positives that come out this year. The Open Cup is a huge one, a championship and a piece of hardware that the franchise now has, first in history, which is big. Western Conference -- we worked hard all year to get to this point. And the fact that there are so many guys that came through and stepped up, there are a lot of positives that perhaps you can tally in terms of statistics but there are a lot of good things that come out," he said. "Having said that, our work is not done."
Clearly, working for the primary goal will be the Wizards focus at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday night. The only question lies in the severity of the tip towards an offensive mindset in a team that is known for its more symmetrical approach.
"I think those people who follow the league and who follow coach (Bob) Gansler and his past coaching endeavors know that he has a high premium on defense," said center back Nick Garcia. "To an extent, I think we have to throw that out the window, but by no means am I going to say we're going to throw nine people forward and leave one guy back. By the same token, we're not going to play bunker defense like everyone expects us to play."
A Wizards push forward would be negated by one or more San Jose strikes, especially a pre-emptive one that could decimate any momentum Kansas City might build early.
In the first match of the home-and-home series last Sunday in San Jose, the Earthquakes made a concerted effort to play dead balls, mainly corners, into the Wizards six-yard box to test 'keeper Bo Oshoniyi and his defenders ability to clear them to safety. The strategy led to the Quakes second goal of the match.
"I think they [San Jose] did their research. Obviously, Bo has done extremely well for us, and come playoff time, I think anyone tries to get the upper hand on any team," said Garcia. "It's the little things that set you apart in the playoffs. It seems that they were trying to pound the ball in there an awful lot. To their credit, it paid off. On the second goal we just didn't do a good enough job getting the ball out of the area."
If the Wizards attack, likely spearheaded by U.S. national team striker Josh Wolff, can consistently pressure San Jose's back line, corners and free kicks for the Quakes will not be a problem and the chances of the Wizards netting that important first goal will increase exponentially.
"We'll have to be a little more attack oriented, and it's going to be tough," said Wolff. "We're not a defensive-minded team, but we have a defensive posture that we usually break out of. We will be a little more offensive minded from the get go, but you're not going to throw everything out at once."
The Wizards offensive arsenal contains some potent weapons that have threatened all season in Wolff and his forward counterpart Davy Arnaud, as well as Simutenkov, who has recovered from his preseason injury to provide some key goals down the stretch -- including the only goal of the Open Cup Final. But little-used midfielder Diego Walsh could also provide a spark. Walsh is not a likely starter, but could be used to jumpstart the offense if the first half is fruitless for Kansas City, his one-on-one ability a possible trump card that pushes the Wizards to glory.
"If I come in when players are tired, I could isolate some of their defenders and take advantage of the strengths I have," said Walsh.
Wolff echoed the idea.
"If you don't get a goal at some point in the first half, I think you have to start to move numbers more aggressively forward," he said. "The first half we're going to push to get the first goal. The first goal is the most important at any point in the game. If we get the first goal it will make the rest of the game more of -- they're going to be holding on for the win and we're going to be pushing to eventually get the tie. The first goal is obviously crucial."
Bob Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.