On July 4, 2003, the Kansas City Wizards were the guests of the Colorado Rapids in Denver. That night, 60,142 fans were in attendance to witness the Rapids defeat the Wizards 3-2.
On that same celebratory holiday last year, the Rapids' victims, er, guests, were the New England Revolution, and 41,979 fans cheered the Rapids to a 1-0 victory.
Monday, the Wizards will again face Colorado on July 4 -- a date when the Rapids have been victorious eight times with only one loss. Is the big crowd and big-game atmosphere an advantage for the Rapids, making them more motivated? Does the big crowd intimidate the visitors, proving to lessen their concentration?
"I think it can only impact the home team in a positive way," said Wizards center midfielder and seven-year MLS veteran Kerry Zavagnin.
Ironically, the same goes for the visitors.
"For the most part, the crowds here, and especially in Colorado, won't get on you too much if you're not playing well, [so] it won't be a hostile environment," Zavagnin said. "It will be a nicer environment to see a lot of the seats filled which is uncharacteristic of playing in the big football stadiums, and we're looking forward to it."
But surely the Rapids will be motivated to perform well for the large contingent of fans.
"I anticipate that they will be, but so will we. Everybody likes playing in front of a big crowd," said fellow center midfielder and MLS original Diego Gutierrez.
"We've had the opportunity here in Kansas City to play on the Fourth of July before and we've come up short on a couple occasions, and it's disappointing when you don't perform for your hometown fans whether it's their first time out or whether they are season-ticket holders," said Zavagnin. "There is a sense of responsibility that you want to give the people who have come out and paid to watch you play a good show.
"We're entertainers, and when people come out and pay, you need to be entertaining. But from our standpoint, when we go out on the road, especially, we're looking for a result. At the end of the day, it would be nice to win and be entertaining at the same time."
The Wizards, with a league-leading seven ties to go with five wins and three losses, have had trouble all season achieving decisive results. And it's that all-important concentration where the Wizards have lacked according to Gutierrez.
"Most of the stuff we need to improve is in concentration. We have enough effort, we have enough passion, and a lot of times we have enough intelligence and talent, but we just don't put it all together. That's how you get results," he said.
Zavagnin agreed. "We've performed as 'C' students this year. We've done just enough to get by, but we haven't been great. You see that in a lot of games that we play whether we go up early with a goal or we struggle late to get back even," he said.
"It's well within our capabilities to go out and score and to go out and eliminate teams from scoring, but we don't have that killer instinct at the moment where we do that over 90 minutes. Whether it's 3-3, 4-4, 1-1, or 0-0, we don't put teams under the kind of pressure that we should offensively or defensively.
"As a team the components are there to be successful. We've got the desire; we've got the components to get it done. There should be a sense of confidence we can take from that."
The Wizards may also be expected to take some confidence from the fact that Pablo Mastroeni will be missing from the Rapids lineup due to international duty with the U.S. national team for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Rapids head coach Fernando Clavijo admits that Mastroeni is a key component to their success.
"We've been suffering throughout the year with Pablo, with the national team, with suspension, with injury," Clavijo said. "He is in and out of the lineup. But he is our leader."
However, Zavagnin and Gutierrez similarly believe the absence of the man they would normally battle is a mixed blessing.
"Will it make a difference, yeah. There's only one Pablo in the league in what he offers on both sides," said Gutierrez. "Having said that, I anticipate that whoever is going to step in is going to take this opportunity to grab it and run with it. The fact that Pablo isn't in doesn't make it any easier."
Forward Jeff Cunningham, who has tallied eight goals this season, was not called in by U.S. coach Bruce Arena. Thus he must be dealt with by the Wizards if they hope to grab the three points Monday.
"He is the kind of player who can go unnoticed for big parts of the game, and at one instance, will pull off a play that not many players can do. Those are difficult players to play against in that sometimes they can catch you sleeping," Zavagnin said. "With his speed and his ability to create things, it's vitally important that you respect that. It would be to our advantage that we put him under pressure the moment he receives the ball, and to get the ball off his foot and not allow him to run at you one-v-one."
Even though the two teams come in with less than impressive records -- the Rapids currently have only four wins and two ties in 16 contests -- the atmosphere, motivation and ability is there for a classic matchup similar to the season opener at Arrowhead where the Wizards led 2-0, surrendered a 54th-minute Cunningham score, jumped up 3-1, and then allowed an 81st-minute conversion by Mark Chung (now with San Jose) before holding on in the end.
"We know it's going to be a good one. As with any other game, we have to approach it appropriately and in a way where we are going to give ourselves the best chance to win," Gutierrez said. "It doesn't matter if its 5,000 or 60,000, we have to go out there with the mentality and the conviction that we can walk away with three points. That's always our approach; we just have to go out and execute.
"When you are about to kickoff, you see 11 guys who are ready to compete. And when you step on a field and have 11 guys on the other side that are wanting the same thing that you are -- three points -- it really is anybody's game. It's a matter of who comes prepared, who's willing to do hard work, who's willing to put in the time to actually walk away with the points."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.