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Nov 13, 2003

San Jose, K.C. clash for best in West

It's hard not to sympathize with the Kansas City Wizards as they head in to Saturday night's Western Conference Final against the San Jose Earthquakes.

For starters, they were seemingly a lock to stay home and host the final against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Arrowhead Stadium. A warm-weather team playing on the road in frigid K.C. - guess who'd be the favorite. After all, L.A. owned a two-goal advantage heading into Sunday night's match against San Jose, and then pushed it to a four-goal lead 13 minutes into the game.

Four goals, yes. The only time such a lead is ever insurmountable in soccer is when it's played on PlayStation or X-Box ... and you're playing with Real Madrid.

Yet, San Jose stormed back with vigor and scored five goals to not only cap the greatest game ever seen in Major League Soccer and arguably the best comeback in the history of U.S. soccer, but also end the Galaxy's season and move on to the league's version of the Final Four.

That leads us to the next reason to feel bad for K.C.: Destiny.

Don't think the San Jose players aren't feeling it right now. Sunday's unbelievable victory actually leaves the side in better shape than if it breezed through the series winning both games by comfortable margins. Its fans, who were English-like in their enduring support throughout the match, certainly have to feel a similar sense of magic flowing through their veins, and will surely turn cozy little Spartan Stadium into a snakepit.

Said Landon Donovan of the atmosphere: "The crowd was louder than it has been at any time; louder even than those at the World Cup last year."

The past is not on Kansas City's side, as the 'Quakes have gone 4-1 at home in playoff matches by outscoring opponents 14-4 over the five-game span. The Wizards also haven't beat Donovan and Co. this season, having lost the last two meetings after tying the first two games.

What the Wizards do have going for them is experience. With Tony Meola playing as well as ever in the goal, San Jose will be hard-pressed to find the back of the net.

In 15 postseason games for Kansas City, the 34-year-old goalkeeper has been at his best, going 7-5-3, including five shutouts in 2000 when he was the MVP for the MLS Cup-winning Wizards.

The defense in front of him rose to the challenge against John Spencer and Chris Carrieri last week, as well, but will have to show much better against San Jose than it did when the two teams last met on Sept. 20 when Donovan posted a hat trick in a 4-1 romp.

Head coach Bob Gansler said that his side won't mark Donovan, per say, but they'll surely put added muscle on him to try and stifle him and limit his time on the ball.

The three-back alignment of Jimmy Conrad, Diego Gutierrez and Nick Garcia will see plenty of the 21-year-old superstar, but much of the challenge belongs to defensive midfielder Kerry Zavagnin.

"We've got to neutralize his touches on the ball and know where he is all the time," Meola said to the Kansas City Star on Tuesday. "He has a knack for getting away from you when he's not on the ball. You have to really pay attention to him."

The Earthquakes have a similar task at hand in dealing with 40-year-old midfield maestro Preki, who is one of the three finalists for the league's MVP award.

In the 3-6-1 formation that Gansler has switched to, Preki is free of defensive responsibilities and has free reign from an attacking position behind Wolde Harris.

Despite relying heavily on his magical left foot, the 2003 Budwesier Scoring Champion (12 goals, 17 assists) will slot up as much on the right side as the left and is just as dangerous when serving balls to the box as he is unleashing shots on frame.

It'll be interesting to see how San Jose head coach Frank Yallop handles Preki, since he said that he'll keep captain Jeff Agoos as a left back as he was in the thriller against L.A. rather than as a central defender where he played all season long.

If that's the case, huge responsibilities fall on the shoulders of Troy Dayak and Eddie Robinson -- two very physical defenders -- to organize the back four and shut down an attack that also features Chris Klein, as well as Josh Wolff, who will be wearing a flak jacket to protect a fractured rib and is likely to come off the bench in the second half.

Richard Mulrooney, who was a huge factor in San Jose's victory over the weekend, will see plenty of Preki, and will likely be the team's X-factor once again, as he was all season. Jamil Walker will be another player to watch, as he's coming off his best game in an Earthquakes uniform, having scored one goal and set up Donovan for another against L.A. The speedy rookie out of Santa Clara could be troublesome for the likes of Gutierrez, who isn't known for his wheels in the back.

Kansas City's success will likely be decided by its midfield play. Filling in for usual starter Eric Quill, Stephen Armstrong needs to be a force on the left side, while Igor Simutenkov has to provide the attacking presence that was seen earlier in the season when he scored six goals through the first half of the year before several injuries limited his playing time down the stretch.

No matter what happens, it's highly unlikely that we'll see the wide-open play seen in each series last weekend. It's a one-off this time around, and both teams will surely be hesitant to push numbers forward.

San Jose has an edge in talent, while Kansas City has the more experienced goalkeeper and the wildcard that is Preki. The postage-stamp sized pitch in San Jose will ultimately favor the home side, and could make enough of a difference for the 'Quakes.

The Pick: San Jose 2-0.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.