Playing to win ... ugly?

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

CARSON, Calif. – Just like the way his strikers suffered 180 barren minutes against the Kansas City Wizards' defense, the scornful words of Chivas USA coach Preki failed to hit the desired target.

After a season in which his team not only rubbed shoulders with the high flyers of Major League Soccer but also muscled its way to the top of the Western Conference standings, Preki could scarcely believe the dream of a championship had been snatched away Saturday night in a 0-0 draw that let K.C. advance in the MLS Cup playoffs.

For a man who during his playing days was a mercurial magician with a ball at his feet, he could have handled being outplayed or outskilled. But this – being denied by an opponent who he believed more intent on shutting down Chivas than producing any goals of their own – was too much to take.

"That team (Kansas City) are fortunate," Preki spat out in the Home Depot Center locker room minutes after the scoreless second-leg draw condemned his team to a 1-0 aggregate defeat in the Western Conference semifinals. "They are fortunate to be in the playoffs and they are fortunate to beat us tonight.

"We are a far better team in my opinion. It is hard to accept this but it is reality – the system rewards negative play. All season we hear about how Kansas is an attacking team but I laugh at that. It wasn't even good defending because we could have scored four or five goals.

"If they outplayed us I can accept but we have all seen how it was. We totally dominated."

Preki's words represented the emotion of a proud man deeply wounded by defeat. Around him, the Chivas players shared hugs and the occasional tear, and the coach found the scene tough to handle.

Frustration was etched across his face and he conducted a debrief with sympathetic co-owner Antonio Cue and president Shawn Hunter, who realize better than most the efforts Preki has made to turn their team into contenders.

Yet with his feelings still raw, Preki missed the whole point of the playoffs. MLS' playoff system has been altered many times over the years, but it has never included provision for style points. Logic goes out the window at this time of year. Often, fortune, fitness, momentum and mentality count for more.

Across the corridor, where the Wizards were celebrating a job done effectively – if not stylishly – Preki's harsh words could not cut through the palpable air of satisfaction.

Sick and tired of playing attractive soccer but leaking goals, Kansas City stumbled into a resilient yet unspectacular new style through necessity on the final day of the regular season, when a victory at FC Dallas clinched its postseason spot. That approach continued in both legs against Chivas, but Curt Onalfo's team makes no apologies for adding toughness to its repertoire.

"I played with Preki and he is a very emotional guy," Wizards midfielder Kerry Zavagnin said. "Right now I am sure the loss hurts for them, but the playoffs are all about momentum.

"You go out there and roll the dice. Through the year we were a much more attractive team – but in the playoffs it is all about winning. No one really cares how we are doing it.

"You can say we were lucky but we did our job. It would be nice to win playing attractive soccer but this is what we have in the locker room and we are not going to apologize for winning."

So as Chivas licks its wounds and reflects upon the bittersweet nature of a season that saw it post the West's best record, Kansas City turns its focus to Houston's Robertson Stadium, where it will face the defending champion Dynamo in Thursday's Western Conference final.

The team that got bored with "losing pretty" and decided that "winning ugly" is much more fun is just two more grinding displays away from being crowned the champ. And while the Wizards' approach may not endear them to the purists, it is hard not to admire their desire, adaptability, and willingness to work for each other for a shot at success.

"There are different ways of getting to this point," Zavagnin said. "People may not like the way we have done it, but we are here and nothing else counts."

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