The Kansas City Wizards' struggle with consistency this season has been well documented. But since the All-Star break, when a confidence-building 6-1 thrashing of the Des Moines Menace in the U.S. Open Cup was followed by a win against the New England Revolution, dealing them their first home loss of the season, last year's Western Conference champion is ready to make a surge for the top.
Their next step takes them back to Chicago to meet the Fire where a win will move the Wizards within one point of their long-time away nemesis and perhaps to within one point of first place in the East.
"The key against any team on the road is to take good care of the ball, weather the initial storm and try to get on the board first so they have to play from behind," said Wizards boss Bob Gansler.
Early against the Revolution last weekend, the Wizards bent defensively, but center backs Jimmy Conrad and Shavar Thomas were then able to help marshal their side on to a 2-1 victory as they held firm even after giving up the tying goal only a minute after taking the lead.
"Before the All-Star break, I was down on myself because I felt like we weren't holding down teams as we did last year," said Thomas. "Defensive work is not just the [backs], it is a collective effort. Saturday night everybody responded well, and we did a good job of making it easier -- more of a collective effort. In the second half of the season, everybody is picking it up, especially myself."
That collective coming together for a single mission has enabled the Wizards to play more confidently.
"We got Jimmy and [forward Josh Wolff] back and the players are together in that we see in the first half of the season we hadn't played our best consistently and were able to still be, in the standings, close to the leaders," Gansler said. "And we think we can do it. What better time to have a change in heart than right now?"
The Wizards showed a rediscovered attacking flare in finishing off the Revs in the 73rd minute as Wolff threaded a quick and precise pass between two defenders to Scott Sealy, who calmly chipped over onrushing goalkeeper Matt Reis.
Rookie Sealy and Wolff in attack and Davy Arnaud and Chris Klein in the wide midfield positions have found their form in their last two matches together as they were as dangerous against the Revs at times as they were against the PDL's Menace.
"Josh left for a little bit with the national team, and I think the relationship with Kleiny and Davy developed while he was gone," said Trinidadian international Sealy, who has been called in for the Aug. 17 World Cup qualifier against the USA.
Although possibly stunted by upcoming national team duties, a growth in understanding between Sealy and Wolff could be the key to continuing Kansas City's success.
"When playing with Josh, the biggest thing for me is that he's so creative that I know I can get a pass that maybe the other guys won't be able to give me. He's definitely the most creative guy up top," said Sealy. "He gives the defenders a hard time because you want to pressure Josh, but you don't want to leave the other guys free. He catches them in two minds - you either step to Josh or leave me free. Our timing has progressed, we've been able to try and anticipate what the other person is going to do and just be around."
Last time in Chicago, the Wizards stuck around just long enough to gain a come-from-behind tie as Preki scored in the 80th minute to give the Wizards their first-ever point visiting the Windy City.
"We'll be ready for the challenge. Victory hasn't been easy playing Chicago in Chicago. We're hoping to go in there and change that. New England hadn't lost all season in New England, and we go in there and do it," said Thomas. "Right now we are in the frame of mind that we are going to get the work done, everybody, regardless of where, when, and how; we're just going to go out there and do it."
Wizards captain Diego Gutierrez will make the trip and hopes to be able to help slow the varied Fire attack for some of the 90 minutes.
"They have five, six, seven guys who have scored goals this year. They come at you from all different directions. It isn't a matter of saying, 'Hey, you shut out [Nate] Jaqua, then we have it.' They just beat New England scoring three goals and got two against D.C. and [the goals] were from all different people," Gansler said.
Gansler went on to praise his center midfield tandem of Sasha Victorine and Kerry Zavagnin who have complemented each other well in providing a link between the back line and the forwards.
"When we are performing up to our capabilities, we are as good as any team in our conference, if not the league," said Gansler. "The parts are there; we've said that all along. We just have to make sure the whole is all to compete. Doing it on a consistent basis is where we're at right now. We're trying to get a head of steam."
Bob Gansler is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.