When they were riding a nine-match undefeated streak during June and July, the Wizards earned plaudits from much of the U.S. soccer community as one of the best teams in Major League Soccer. Healthy and contributing heavily to the tune of 15 points (five goals and five assists) in 15 games was Wizards striker Josh Wolff.
The harsh bite of reality that followed as the Wizards lost three games in a row was particularly difficult for Wolff who was stung with an inflamed right knee that kept him out of the lineup with an injury for the first time all season. One had to wonder if this rough patch would spell doom for Wolff and the Wizards' hopes for a Western Conference title and Wolff's chances of contributing to the U.S. national team's second round of World Cup qualifying matches.
Despite nearly being unmasked as pretenders instead of contenders, the Wizards and Wolff have rebounded with a 2-1 victory on Aug. 21 against the New England Revolution and a 1-0 triumph in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal against the San Jose Earthquakes, staving off any lingering effects from their brief downswing. Wolff did his share in the victories tallying a goal and an assist in New England and drawing the penalty that led to the Wizards goal in the Open Cup match, showing that his knee problem is abating.
"It's coming around, now I'm able to play. The last couple of games have been pretty good and [things are] certainly looking a little more optimistic," said a relieved Wolff. "For a while there I was getting a little bummed out 'cause didn't really know what was going on with the knee. I think it's kind of sorting itself out. I got some shots, some treatment, basically doing the run through the gamut. It's coming along."
The persistent irritation meant that Wolff was passed over by U.S. national team manager Bruce Arena when selecting the squad that will face El Salvador in New England on Saturday and Panama in Panama on Wednesday, a fact that Wolff laments but says is a result of preferring to err on the side of caution.
"I've spoken with the [national team] training staff over the last two or three weeks, and I let it be known that I'm still a work in progress as far as getting fit and getting back into form," Wolff said. "My last couple of games have been solid. I can only work on my games that I have here and that's basically the attitude I take."
Helping Wolff keep things in perspective is his most recent injury, a broken hand suffered during an encounter with Craig Waibel in last week's Open Cup semifinal.
"It was a ball played in, and [Waibel] just kind of stepped on me. [His cleat] went straight in, kind of punctured my hand, and broke a bone, just chipped the bone in half. I had to have a little quick surgery after that. It's minor, just a hand, I can live with those kind of things," Wolff said.
Wolff is also finding opposing defenses easier to live with despite the untimely loss of offensive catalyst midfielder Chris Klein to a left knee injury because of returning teammates Preki and Igor Simuntenkov, who have provided the Wizards with a new variety of offensive weapons.
"Igor's been back for a few games, and it's good to have him out there. [With his] good pace and good creativity, he's very helpful in our attack," Wolff said. "Preki played a little bit more in the last game versus San Jose and played pretty well for 20 or 30 minutes. He just brings a different level as far as passing and setting guys up, which is good for forwards."
The 27-year-old Wolff, in the midst of his seventh MLS season, is now ready to lead his squad into the final stretch of the season, a time when having the right attitude and work rate is paramount.
"The guys and I feel that our locker room has been pretty solid all year. We didn't panic when we lost a couple, and we're certainly not going to get too high on ourselves after winning a couple. Going in with the right approach is an important part with us," Wolff said. "We're playing pretty well and certainly a bit more confident now, so we're going there [Chicago] to get three points. I don't think we're going for any ties at this point. This team is built on working and competing so that's kind of where we're at with guys and it's a big reason why we have success.
"We need to get two results in the next two games, after that we play all division games; it's on the table for us and it's going to be a tough stretch but I guess you like it that way going into the playoffs. There's no certainty at this point of who's making the playoffs. The rest of our division is fighting for their lives as well."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.