Was it destiny that determined the Kansas City Wizards would be matched up with the San Jose Earthquakes in the 2004 MLS Cup Playoffs? Was it destiny that the Wizards would be the team holding the home-field advantage this time around?
Perhaps, since how else could one explain the Wizards finishing ahead of an Earthquakes side that is more or less the same as it was a year ago when they themselves spent most of the season without Igor Simutenkov, Preki, Tony Meola and Chris Klein -- arguably their top four players?
One rational explanation could involve an immense desire to overcome and to earn a second chance at glory that was so near last Nov. 15 in San Jose when the Wizards were eight minutes away from earning a spot in the 2003 MLS Cup Final after taking their second lead of the game.
"We played them in the conference final last year, and after that game, after giving such a great effort, we realized that the little difference could have been the home-field advantage," said midfield anchor Kerry Zavagnin. "So we worked very hard this year to assure ourselves that we'd be ahead in the end."
Ironically, some beg to differ with the idea that the Wizards have gained an advantageous position by winning the Western Conference title, the right to play the fourth-place team, and the right to host the second game in a two-game aggregate goals series. Zavagnin knows the task will not be an easy one, no matter the logistics.
"Now's the time where we need to step it up a little bit more because San Jose can be a very tough team. They're defending champions, I know they came in fourth place, but that's not a fourth-place team," Zavagnin said. "It's going to be tough going out there and then coming back here."
Hosting the second match at home will certainly be an advantage for the Wizards who won nine of their home matches this season, tying D.C. United for the most home triumphs. It will be even more of an advantage if the Wizards score first, especially if the goal comes late, in San Jose.
The Earthquakes would then be forced to further open up their offense and leave themselves susceptible to the counterattack.
The worst-case scenario for the Wizards would be a multi-goal loss in San Jose, but betting on that would not be wise considering that both matches between the Wizards and Quakes in San Jose have been low scoring ties (1-1 and 0-0), two results that support the notion that the small pitch at Spartan Stadium plays into the Wizards compact and disciplined defense. Also consider that the Wizards ended the regular season with the second highest road winning percentage, and the most road wins, in the league.
And no matter the outcome of the road leg of the semifinal round for the Wizards, they will be coming home for Game 2. It was probably that knowledge that sustained the Earthquakes last season when they lost their first game of the playoffs last year in Los Angeles 2-0 before falling behind by two more goals at home -- and then behind their crowd's support rallied for a 5-4 aggregate victory in extra time.
"We're in a good situation right now, but it's a whole new season -- four games is what it's going to take [to get to MLS Cup 2004]. I think we're ready and now is the time when we have everything in order. Now it's just time to go out and battle ourselves to win," Zavagnin said.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.