The Kansas City Wizards' hopes of reaching the MLS championship game suffered its first major setback before the season even started when two-time league MVP Preki shattered his ankle and leg. They got worse a few weeks later when Igor Simutenkov, the club's second-leading scorer, arrived in camp with a leg injury and intensified in August when Chris Klein, perhaps the best right wing in MLS, tore up his left knee.
Later, veteran Tony Meola hobbled away with an Achilles' tendon injury, leaving the goalkeeping responsibilities to a journeyman who had played all of eight minutes last year.
So what ever happened to those poor, unlucky Wizards? They finished tied for the best record in the regular season, overcame a seemingly impossible deficit in the first round of the playoffs to oust defending champion San Jose, and outclassed Los Angeles in the Western Conference final to earn a meeting with D.C. United in Sunday's MLS Cup at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
"If we believed everything that we read and everything we heard, we would've finished 10th in the league," midfielder Diego Gutierrez said during a media teleconference this week.
"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."
Without Preki, the Wizards turned to Gutierrez and U.S. national team midfielder Kerry Zavagnin for leadership. Without Simutenkov, Josh Wolff and previously unknown Davy Arnaud combined for 19 goals and 15 assists in the regular season. Another anonymous player, Jack Jewsbury, whose last-minute goal capped a comeback from a two-goal series deficit and eliminated the Earthquakes two weeks ago, helped fill the void left by Klein.
And Bo Oshoniyi has filled in admirably for Meola, making 12 starts overall and helping the Wizards yield an MLS-low 30 goals in 30 regular season games. Oshoniyi, 33, was Columbus's starting keeper during the 1996 MLS inaugural season before spending three years in the minor leagues. Claimed by Kansas City in 2000, he backed up Meola and managed 26 appearances in four seasons before being thrust into a prominent role late this year.
"No one in our camp was surprised" by Oshoniyi's emergence, Coach Bob Gansler said. "We talked about different guys being pillars of the team as we went into the season and, for sure, Tony was one of them. When he went down, you felt a little bit and you said, 'Bo will do it,' and Bo has done it.
"The guys playing in front of him didn't feel they had to alter their way of playing in order to protect Bo. One pillar went down, another one went up."
Gansler is another American soccer relic who has risen again in MLS. After overseeing the 1990 U.S. World Cup team, which lost three straight first-round games in Italy, Gansler disappeared into the minor leagues before getting hired by the Wizards in 2000. In that first season, he guided them to the MLS title, capped by a 1-0 victory over Chicago at RFK Stadium.
This year, however, was his finest work following Preki's devastating preseason injury. The 41-year-old midfielder tried to come back in the middle of the season, but lasted just two games before deciding he wasn't ready. Klein played in 19 games and had four goals and eight assists, but tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Simutenkov (seven goals last year) injured his leg in preseason and has made only five starts. Meola, 35, had seven shutouts in 21 starts until his right Achilles' tendon flared up.
Rookie Will Hesmer has been Oshoniyi's backup during the playoffs, but the improving Meola could be activated for the final.
"You've got a guy over there that's been on three World Cup teams, MVP of the league [in 2000], I know he's itching to get back in there when he's healthy," Oshoniyi told the Wizards' Web site. "Right now I'm just taking it in stride and riding it as long as I can. Hopefully I'll get the chance to start in the Cup, and we'll take it from there."
The Wizards have improvised throughout the season and no matter who was on the field, their disciplined, defensive style was never altered.
"Coming in without Preki or Igor forced us to find a way to play," said Wolff, who had a team-high 10 goals.
"Then we lost Klein and he was a big part of our attack. But we found our way and our identity. In the end it made us find different players to step up. There was no change in anyone's mentality or how we would play soccer. It was a matter of looking at the game and finding different ways to get results."
Despite the Wizards' absences, United is not taking them lightly.
"They lost some of their big pieces, some of the best players who've ever been in this league," said midfielder Ben Olsen, whose team split two games with Kansas City this year, both 1-0.
"We don't know as much about them as we would playing the MetroStars or New England, but we get to watch them on TV quite a bit. The last game they played, that's what they're about -- playing good, solid defense and catching people on the counterattack. We have to be very sharp going forward that when we do lose it, we have to get back and get our shape so we don't get caught."