Talk about your extreme makeovers. Three months ago, it was all fun-and-gun in Kansas City. Eddie Johnson was lighting it up. The team was also leaking goals, but did anybody care? The Wizards were having more fun than a group of 8-year-olds at an AYSO jamboree.
As it turns out, Kansas City head coach Curt Onalfo cared plenty, especially when the team began to struggle, and as a result, those days of carefree soccer are gone. In its place is an operation intent on grinding out results, and the switch just might propel Kansas City past the Houston Dynamo in this Saturday's Western Conference final.
Nowhere was the Wizards' transformation more evident than in their first-round playoff series against Chivas USA. Kansas City prevailed 1-0 on aggregate, notching their third consecutive shutout in last Saturday's 0-0 draw. Granted, they had some help in the form of some voodoo-infused woodwork that repelled no fewer than three Chivas shots during the series. The result left the Goats unimpressed, and Onalfo unsympathetic.
"We didn't survive, we advanced," Onalfo said. "That's all a part of playoff soccer."
As for the Wizards' opponents, both survival and advancement are ingrained in Houston's DNA. In the Dynamo's first-round matchup with bitter rivals Dallas, Houston rallied from two goals down with 23 minutes remaining to win 4-2 on aggregate. Such a comeback was nothing new for the Dynamo. The triumph marked the fourth consecutive playoff series -- be it over two games or one -- that they have come from behind to win.
Head coach Dominic Kinnear would no doubt prefer a more conventional triumph, but either way, his side will be hoping for the chance to defend its MLS crown.
Key matchup: Houston's wide attackers vs. Kansas City's flank defenders
Houston is a team that thrives on excellent flank play. When players like Brian Mullan and Brad Davis are in full flight, the attacking third opens up for the Dynamo. Brian Ching can make his powerful runs into the penalty area. Joseph Ngwenya can either burn the opposition with his speed, or check back to the ball. And most importantly, Dwayne De Rosario can make his devastating, late runs into the box that have long been his specialty.
Just as important is what happens when Mullan and Davis struggle. Opponents can collapse into the middle, De Rosario no longer has room to operate, and the Houston attack begins to sputter.
For the latter scenario to unfold, the Wizards will need to get outstanding games out of wide defenders Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington. This year Jewsbury successfully made the transition from midfield to defense. Harrington did the same at season's end, replacing the inconsistent Jose Burciaga Jr., and providing solid play on the left side.
Both players have shown enough mobility to stay with the likes of Davis and Mullan, but given the latter's shiftiness on the ball, and Davis' ability to pop up in unlikely places, it will take more than just pure speed to keep up with the Houston duo.
Players to watch: For Houston -- defender Eddie Robinson, midfielder Dwayne De Rosario and forward Brian Ching. For Kansas City -- defender Jimmy Conrad, forward Scott Sealy and forward Eddie Johnson
Robinson is the defensive linchpin for a side that set an MLS record this season with only 23 goals allowed, and it will be up to him, along with Ryan Cochrane, to keep the likes of Johnson and Sealy in check. Houston will be praying that the good De Rosario who makes dynamic runs, takes audacious free kicks and has a high work rate is the one who turns up, as opposed to the bad De Rosario who repeatedly dribbles into trouble. After an injury-plagued season, Ching stepped up big-time in the first round, with his two goals cementing his reputation as a player who delivers in the clutch.
Conrad provided exactly what Kansas City needed in the opening round, combining first-rate defending with good organizational skills. Sealy was a bit subdued against Chivas, and the Wizards will need more from him against the Dynamo. While Onalfo praised Johnson for the way he "sacrificed for the team" against the Goats, now is the time for the Wizards star to deliver some goals.
X factors: Houston midfielder Richard Mulrooney and Kansas City midfielder Davy Arnaud
You don't hear the Dynamo pining for Ricardo Clark too much do you? That's because Mulrooney has proved to be a superb fill-in for his suspended teammate, using his experience to make up for Clark's superior range. When the pressure mounted in the latter stages of the opening round, it was Mulrooney who kept the Dynamo offense ticking with some sharp possession passes.
Arnaud is the Wizards' most underrated player. Not only does he have a prodigious work rate on defense, but he's also counted on to provide creativity in attack, and his slashing runs can cause plenty of problems for opposition defenses. It was Arnaud's free-kick goal in the first round against Chivas that proved to be the difference.
Plenty of people are predicting a defensive struggle, but the attacking talent on display tells me there are going to be some goals in this match, especially given that Dynamo players like Robinson and Mulrooney are carrying yellow cards. Both performers know that another caution means no MLS Cup final, should Houston get that far, and it might cause them to back out of some challenges when they normally wouldn't.
That said, Houston's superior defense and slight edge in midfield should carry the day. Kansas City has some potent attacking weapons, but its midfield, one that has struggled to possess the ball during the postseason, would appear to have less creativity than the Dynamo's.
That's not to say that the Wizards can't win this game. If Kansas City succeeds in utilizing the speed of Johnson and Sealy to get behind Houston's defense, a win is a distinct possibility. Doing that will require the likes of Arnaud and Sasha Victorine to find time and space on the ball, something that Houston is adept at preventing. At minimum, the Wizards will need the central duo of Kerry Zavagnin and Kurt Morsink to provide the kind of possession that can kill off a game.
One factor in Kansas City's defensive revival has been its improvement on set pieces, but this is an area in which Houston excels, and given the cozy dimensions of Robertson Stadium, if the Dynamo can win a lot of free kicks, that could tip the game in their favor.
Not to be forgotten is the tremendous home support that Houston will receive. Over 30,000 fans turned up for the home leg against Dallas, and a number close to that should be in attendance on Saturday. In a tight match, I see the home crowd pushing the Dynamo over the finish line and into their second consecutive MLS Cup final.
Prediction: Houston 2, Kansas City 1
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.