Work in Sports
Single player could decide almost even matchup
Updated: Saturday October 14, 2000 12:14 AM
By Jeff Green, CNNSI.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Just as it did in 1999, Major League Soccer is blessed with a championship game that features the season's two best teams -- two clubs that are so evenly matched that one MLS coach says a single player will make the difference.
The Chicago Fire and Kansas City Wizard both finished the regular season tied with a league-best 57 points, with Kansas City receiving the Supporters' Shield as regular-season champion because a better goal differential.
"We look forward to the match on Sunday as the real tiebreaker," Fire coach Bob Bradley said Friday at the annual MLS Cup media luncheon.
There's little argument that MLS is getting a premier matchup for the title game (1:30 p.m.; ABC).
"For sure, it's fitting," said Wizards coach Bob Gansler, who coached the U.S. at the 1990 World Cup, "that the two teams that finished equal in the regular season get a chance to battle it out here one more time. I trust that the two games that we had against each other are indicative of what's going to happen here on Sunday. They were exciting not only to the players but to the fans."
The teams split their regular season series, with the Wizards winning 4-3 in March and Chicago coming out ahead 3-2 in June.
Asked to predict a winner in Sunday's final, San Jose Earthquakes coach Lothar Osiander pinned the result on whether the Fire's Polish midfield general Peter Nowak takes the field.
If he does, Osiander predicts a 2-1 victory for Chicago, the 1998 MLS champion and the only MLS Cup winner to date other than D.C. United. If not, according to Osiander, it's 2-1 Kansas City, which has never before advanced to the title contest.
Bulgarian forward Hristo Stoitchkov is garnering much of the attention for Chicago, but Gansler is equally wary of Nowak.
"Nowak's name is almost being whispered," Gansler said. "Come on, [Nowak] is as good as anybody in this league."
He "is Mr. Chicago Fire, in my estimation."
Nowak, the MVP of the 1998 MLS Cup, was listed as questionable with a strained left hamstring earlier in the week. He now appears probable, having practiced with the first team in the Fire's Friday training session.
"Peter is still going to be a game-day decision, but he has returned to training," Bradley said. "We're hopeful that he'll be able to play.
Bradley was less confident about Czech defender Lubos Kubik, who hasn't played since May.
"I think he would tell you that, because of the layoff, he's not 100 percent, but I think the problem with the knee behind him," Bradley said.
"They're terrific players. Whenever they're not on the field, we miss them," Bradley said. "But we've also learned that we can play without different players, and we have the confidence that we can still win in those situations."
Two of the league's most respected coaches, Bradley was MLS coach of the year in 1998, and Gansler took the honor this year after turning around a team that had the league's second-worst record last year.
Gansler reconstructed his roster without the dispersal draft that aided the MetroStars' similar turnaround, and got more out of his players than most thought possible. For his part, Bradley helped Chicago overcome key absences throughout the season due to national team commitments and injuries.
After losing the semifinal series to Chicago in three hard-fought games, MetroStars defender Mike Petke tipped Chicago to win the cup.
"I think our series with Chicago was for the MLS championship, and it could have gone either way," he told the Associated Press. "I think the Fire will win the cup against Kansas City."
Los Angeles Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid saw the Wizards come back from a semifinal series deficit to eliminate his team, the runner-up last year to D.C. United. He predicts a K.C. win, but says it won't be easy.
"I think it will be a good game. Chicago is a very good offensive team and played good defense all year," he said. "The Wizards are the kind of team that frustrates you and make it very difficult for you to play your game.
"They really do a good job of taking away your game. But on the other hand, Chicago has the most offensive weapons of any team in the league. So, if any body is able to put some pressure on [Kansas City's] defense, it will be Chicago."
Helping stave off the Chicago pressure will be one of K.C.'s twin defensive midfielders, Matt McKeon.
"We have beat them once and lost to them once; it is now 50-50," said McKeon. "This will be the deciding game."
Probable starting lineups:
Chicago: Zach Thornton; C.J. Brown, Tenywa Bonseu, Carlos Bocanegra; Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch, Dema Kovalenko, Diego Gutierrez, Peter Nowak; Hristo Stoitchkov, Ante Razov.
Kansas City: Tony Meola; Nick Garcia, Peter Vermes, Brandon Prideaux; Kerry Zavagnin, Matt McKeon, Chris Klein, Chris Henderson, Preki; Mo Johnston, Miklos Molnar.
Injury report:In addition to the injuries to Nowak and Kubik, defender Andrew Lewis is questionable with a left ankle sprain. Ruled out for Kansas City are forwards Alex Bunbury and Gary Glasgow, proof that Gansler's team has also proven to be capable of overcoming injuries.
Stepping to the podium Friday to receive his league MVP trophy, Wizards keeper Tony Meola was greeted with a standing ovation.
"I'm speechless. I don't know what to say," Meola opened. "I know that's hard for a lot of the referees to believe."
Meola had already been named the league's goalkeeper of the year and comeback player of the year after recovering from a serious knee injury.
In the league's other awards handed out Friday: MetroStars GM Nick Sakiewicz was named MLS executive of the year; D.C. United VP Stephen Zack was honored as marketing executive of the year; Scott DeBolt of the Chicago Fire is operations executive of the year; and Gabriel Gabor of the Miami Fusion is the public relations executive of the year.
Earlier in the week, Chicago defender Carlos Bocanegra was named rookie of the year, while San Jose's Abdul Thompson Conteh was honored as humanitarian of the year.