Coming into the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions' Cup quarterfinal, the first match that counts in the 2005 soccer year, the Kansas City Wizards are realistic in knowing their opponent has a significant advantage: Deportivo Saprissa has simply played far more games as a team recently.
Beyond that, the other reality is "they're a force to be reckoned with," according to center back Nick Garcia.
Wizards head coach Bob Gansler agrees the Costa Rican club is a tough draw.
"They are one of the better teams in Central America," he said. "They've got a half-dozen national team players who our guys are going to see again in World Cup qualifying, and it's going to take a very good effort to get a good result."
Gansler and his staff have been familiarizing the Wizards with the competition, collectively and individually, in the last couple of days.
"They play a very fast, direct style. As far as individuals, they have (Walter Centeno) in center midfield who is a national team member, two very strong forwards (Wilson Munoz and Ronald Gomez), and a guy on the right who serves a very good ball. Those are the guys we are keying on," said wide midfielder Chris Klein, though the cause will be helped with the injury to Saprissa forward Alvaro Saborio, the Costa Rican league's leading goalscorer who suffered a fractured foot a month ago.
Gansler has proven to be one of the best at preparing a team for the opponent in the past, but understandably, he apparently will not be straying from a magical formula consisting of a dynamic unit on the field, a quick and lethal attack, and a stout defense.
"We don't play formations, we just play us. The guys have a four-man back line, and the other guys adjust to the ball. It doesn't make any difference where I put the Xs on the blackboard," said Gansler. "We will just have to play like we did last year and be around the ball defensively, get it early, get it often, offensively enjoy it and create opportunities."
Central midfielder Diego Gutierrez, though somewhat hobbled by a slight right hip injury, and the rest of the Wizards are healthy, so expect the regulars from the end of last season to man the 11 spots on the pitch excepted only by the additions of Klein, who has rehabilitated his left ACL tear, and newly-acquired Sasha Victorine.
If the attack sputters, a rejuvenated Diego Walsh, Preki, or Jack Jewsbury should get the call.
Tactically, the Wizards are hoping to keep the ball for longer periods in order to save the team from the fatigue of extended defending and to create higher percentage opportunities for goal.
"From the get-go we've been working on possession because without the ball you really can't do anything but defend," said Garcia, alluding to Gansler's desire for a more ball-savvy back line. "For us it's becoming more composed, making better choices on the ball, and giving those guys around us better choices."
Ideally the Wizards tweaking, and the expected 30-degree temperature, would pay off in a multiple-goal victory against a challenging Saprissa side as the two-match series will be determined on total goals scored.
"I think if they offered us a 1-0 victory right now, we'd take it," Klein said. "We'll look for that first goal, and being at home, we'll press them to get as many as we can. If the game presents itself and there is an opportunity to get a second or a third, we're definitely going to take that. In saying that, you don't want to give up a goal and let them escape with a tie."
In the Wizards' camp, respect for the in-season opponent exists and a fine-tuning is taking place. Yet the outcome in the crucial first leg will hinge on which team capitalizes on its advantages.
"For them the advantage is there, but for us too. We're playing at home and in some pretty cold weather that I guarantee they're not used to," Garcia said.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.