In any competitive situation, getting the jump on the competition is a goal. In soccer, that first goal can often mark the difference in the end. For each combatant in MLS Cup 2004, the statistics are all there prompting D.C. United and the Kansas City Wizards to draw first blood.
Through the regular season and the postseason, the Wizards were victorious 14 of 18 times with only one loss when scoring first in a contest. Similarly, D.C. United dropped only one match and posted 12 wins in 17 games when they were the initiators. Furthermore, each team won only twice when the opponent jumped on top.
"I think whoever scores the first goal is going to set the tone for the game," said Kansas City forward Davy Arnaud. "If we can come out and get it, it would be huge for us because we've been so good defensively this year. Psychologically it would be a big boost for us."
But how likely are the Wizards to claim the first goal? Many believe D.C. has the more potent offense as they are a team abounding in skillful attacking players with resurgent Jaime Moreno, rising Alecko Eskandarian, newcomer Christian Gomez, veteran Earnie Stewart, Freddy Adu and more. D.C. can put a hurt on from a variety of angles and distances.
Kansas City also sports a balanced attack, but they rely more on winning possession defensively then striking with quick combinations and timely runs mainly through frontrunners Arnaud, U.S. national team forward Josh Wolff and a capable core of supporters who can strike when least expected.
Perhaps playing into the Wizards' hands is the three-man backline United employs.
"I think it will give us more situations where we can get isolated one-versus-one, two-versus-two, which I think would be good for us," said Arnaud. "If they play four in the back, it will be a little tighter. Go with three, and it gives us a bit of space up front."
If the Wizards do score first, the counter may open up more for Kansas City as D.C. United pushes for the equalizer.
"I think it would. They have five in midfield and they're obviously going to look to put even more guys to try and score, so that could open it up a little more especially if we're winning late in the game," said the second-year striker.
More cautious was 1998 and 2000 MLS Cup veteran Diego Gutierrez as he laid out a possible game plan after an initial K.C. strike.
"[The first goal is] important because it's the type of game we like to play, when we stay disciplined and we defend and we pick our spots to attack," he said. "Having said that, we know that D.C. United is going to come out blazing, going to be very spirited, and so are we. So it's going to be a matter of letting the game settle, letting us see what's in front of us and then reacting and trying to organize a good game."
The first 10 minutes will be telling. If D.C. United does fire in one early, the Wizards will be put into a position where their attacking tendency will be compromised. Considering the Wizards' counter-attacking style, which is somewhat dependant on space in the opponent's end, it comes that falling behind in a match is detrimental to their ultimate success, especially if United becomes content with the lead later in the match and assumes a more defensive posture. Arnaud, pointing to his club's three goals against San Jose in the conference semifinals, made the point that his team would not go quietly into the California sunset if they fall behind.
"We've been in that situation this year, especially in the playoffs where we've had to go out and score," he said. "And if that's the case, I think we're capable of pressing the issue a little bit and looking to get a goal or two or however many we would need." Added Gutierrez: "I think they are conscious of the fact that we have a lot of speed up front with Davy and Josh. These two guys have shredded four-man backlines and these guys have three."
There is no doubt the impact of the first goal could be far reaching in MLS Cup 2004: it will promote tactical and attitudinal changes, spur emotions -- generally it will create disarray.
Ultimately things will come down to the moment.
"We have a game plan, but a lot of times in finals game plans go out the window after the whistle blows," Gutierrez said. "A lot of times whoever wants it and can execute better [will be the victors]."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.