Bob Gansler has been around long enough to know that it's all just a game. Win or lose, life goes on.
So it was in classic Gansler style that the longtime coach of the Kansas City Wizards gently reproved the media for doubting his team's ability to reach today's Major League Soccer championship game in the Home Depot Center.
"We're here," he began. "We're pleased to be here. We're not surprised to be here. Some of you might be surprised that we're here, but we're not.
"We're really not that bright, and we don't do a lot of reading. Otherwise we would have noticed that before the season, during the season, at playoffs time, after the first playoff game, some of you folks thought this was not going to be.
"But our players were of a different persuasion....We just kept chugging along and winning the games we needed to win, and there were quite a few of them.
"We lost 10 times. For sure, we were not invincible. We had some extreme clinkers. But we came back from that, so resilience is somewhere in our bag as well....So we're pleased to be here, and perhaps we can surprise some more folks."
To do that, Gansler and the Wizards will need to defeat D.C. United today in an MLS Cup game between former champions. Kansas City won the title in 2000. United was champion in 1996, 1997 and 1999.
Gansler is 63, and his vast experience includes leading the United States out of the soccer wilderness and to the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
United Coach Peter Nowak is 39, and his considerable experience includes several years as captain of Poland's national team. This is Nowak's ninth year in MLS but his first as coach. By winning today, the former Chicago Fire standout can become the first person to win an MLS championship as a player and as a coach.
"I don't perceive any advantages here for him or for myself," Gansler said, "because the thing is decided by the young men on the field."
One of those young men is very young United forward Freddy Adu, who at 15 has reached the championship match in his rookie season.
"Not a lot of people get a chance to do this and, luckily for me, I get a chance to do it in my first year," Adu said.
One year ago, just before MLS Cup 2003, Adu, then 14 and newly signed, was introduced to the media in the Home Depot Center.
"It was pretty funny," he said. "I was asked if I was going to be there again next year playing, and I said, 'yes.' It's great. It's fun. I'm really not surprised, because ever since I joined the team I knew this team could go places.... Now we've just got one more game to go."
Adu is the smiling face of a team that appears to enjoy itself. Under Nowak, United plays the most attractive soccer in MLS.
"I think one of the things that Peter likes to do is play total soccer, where all 10 [field] players defend, all 10 players are allowed to go forward," said defender Ezra Hendrickson. "It's not so much five or six guys defending and six guys attacking. Everybody attacks together, everybody defends together....
"When we're on our game, it's beautiful soccer."
Nowak says it is the players who deserve credit for that, not the coach.
"They make the style of this team, not me," he said.
So, United comes in as the favorite, a fact that doesn't trouble Kansas City. The Wizards, in fact, enjoy being the underdog.
"If there's one thing this group hasn't done all year long it's worry about what the outsiders and the quote unquote experts think," midfielder Diego Gutierrez said. "If we believed everything we read and everything we hear, we would have come in 10th in the league, for sure.
"This team has been counted out pretty much all year long and we've never had a problem with that, mainly because the team has always had personality and character and we've always known where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do."
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MLS Cup 2004
D.C. United vs.
Kansas City Wizards
at the Home Depot Center
Today, 12:30 p.m., Channel 7
* Players to watch -- United: Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian, Christian Gomez, Freddy Adu, Ryan Nelsen. Wizards: Josh Wolff, Davy Arnaud, Diego Gutierrez, Jimmy Conrad, Nick Garcia.
* How they match up -- The teams met twice during the regular season, each earning a 1-0 victory at home. Kansas City was 14-9-7 in the regular season, lost the first game of the playoffs, 2-0, at San Jose, then beat the Earthquakes, 3-0, at Kansas City. The Wizards won the Western Conference title by shutting out the Galaxy, 2-0. Defense is Kansas City's forte. It has given up less than a goal a game, 32 in 33 matches. United was 11-10-9 in the regular season, beat the MetroStars, 2-0, on the road and 2-0 in Washington, then edged the New England Revolution on penalty kicks after a memorable 3-3 tie and overtime to win the Eastern Conference title. Offense is United's strength. It has scored 50 goals in 33 matches.
* Tickets -- The match is a near-sellout, but some tickets remain. (877) 342-5299.
-- Grahame L. Jones