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Contrast of Styles in MLS Title Game

Soccer: Kansas City has concentrated on defense, while Chicago has become an attacking team.


A good offense beats a good defense any day of the week. Or is it the other way around?

The answer, at least as far as Major League Soccer is concerned, should come shortly this afternoon when the final whistle is blown at the end of the league's fifth championship game.

The match pits the Chicago Fire, the team with the best offensive record in MLS, against the Kansas City Wizards, who boast the league's best defense.

The final will be played at RFK Stadium in Washington, a neutral site that could result in the crowd being evenly split. By Friday, more than 35,000 tickets had been sold, but the eventual attendance is unlikely to surpass the 57,431 that turned up at RFK to see D.C. United beat the Colorado Rapids, 2-1, in the 1997 championship game.

Two players from that game will be back today: Wizard winger Chris Henderson, a 1990 NCAA champion from UCLA, and Peter Vermes, the league's defender of the year. Both were with Colorado in '97.

Kansas City also features two other award winners in Bob Gansler, who was named MLS coach of the year, and Tony Meola, who completed a hat trick of honors Friday when he was named the league's most valuable player after earlier being chosen goalkeeper of the year and comeback player of the year.

Meola and Vermes, both U.S. national team veterans, anchor a defense that yielded only 29 goals in 32 regular-season games, tying a league record set by the Galaxy in 1999. Meola had a league-record 16 shutouts.

"I think there's no question we've been the best defensive team," Meola said. "We just have to continue to do what we've done all season, and that's defend as a unit and try to put our chances away when we get them."

Those chances are likely to fall either to Henderson or to Miklos Molnar, the bald Danish striker who is Kansas City's main scoring threat. The team is unbeaten in 13 games in which Molnar has scored a goal.

It was the Wizards who knocked the Galaxy out of the playoffs in the semifinals, which means Los Angeles-area fans are more likely to support the Fire, whose coach, Bob Bradley, will be looking for a second title to add to the one Chicago won in 1998.

The Fire's starting lineup includes a couple of former UCLA players--Ante Razov, who led the team in scoring with 18 goals, and defender Carlos Bocanegra, who was named MLS rookie of the year.

Two other players with L.A. connections are defensive midfielder Chris Armas and winger DaMarcus Beasley, both formerly with the Galaxy.

Chicago, once considered a defensive team, led MLS with 67 goals in the regular season and was the only team to average more than two goals a game.

"We know that we're playing what we've all felt is the best team in MLS," Meola said. "We feel that we have to slow them down offensively and we've done a good job at that all season [against other teams]. We know that the task in front of us is not easy.

"No question they attack better than any team in the league and we have to be at our best defensively. But if there's any team in this league that I'd want to stand in back of and think that we have to win via defense, I'm playing for that team."

Bulgarian World Cup star Hristo Stoitchkov pulls the strings for the Fire, helped by Polish midfielder Peter Nowak, whose status for the final is questionable because of injury.

The two provide the passes that put forwards Razov, Josh Wolff and Dema Kovalenko in scoring positions. Eighteen goals and six assists in the regular season made Razov the league's third-leading scorer behind Mamadou Diallo and former Galaxy forward Clint Mathis.

Wolff, who starred for the U.S. Olympic team in Sydney, and Beasley have the speed to test Kansas City's defense.

Zach Thornton, Chicago's goalkeeper, said this year's Fire team is a little different from the championship-winning team of '98.

"The team that won two years ago, we defended a little better than we do this year," he said. "This year we score more goals. But we made it here, so we'll see what happens."

The clubs met twice in the regular season, with Kansas City winning, 4-3, on March 25 at Arrowhead Stadium and Chicago winning, 3-2, on June 4 at Soldier Field.

"Both teams just went at each other," Meola said. "Both games were just up and down for 90 minutes. There was nothing sleepy about those two games, for sure."

With luck, today's game will be as eye-opening.

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