Kansas City Wizards, 2010 MLS Cup champions?
It may seem like a long shot, but it's not as far-fetched as you might imagine. Because Major League Soccer rewards short-term success over long-term excellence, even well into the summer every team has a shot at the title.
Just look at Real Salt Lake, the defending league champs and the Wizards' opponent on Saturday. A year ago, Real was 5-7-5 after 17 games and no one would have predicted that this team would hoist the trophy at season's end. They had won just two of their previous 10 games (2-4-4).
But Salt Lake squeezed into the playoffs with a losing record at 11-12-7, beating out D.C. United and Colorado on a tiebreaker for the eighth and final spot.
Once the playoffs arrived, Real got hot, knocking off the East champion Crew, the Fire and the West champion Galaxy for the championship.
After 17 games, the Wizards' record (5-8-4) is slightly worse than Salt Lake's a year ago. But that's a difference of just one point.
The Wizards have overcome a much more terrible 10-game stretch. They went 1-7-2 and got just five points from one-third of their season. Still, they are a mere four points behind the eighth-place team in the playoff standings.
And eighth place has been a great spot the last two playoffs. In addition to Real Salt Lake a year ago, the Red Bulls were seeded eighth in 2008 and advanced all the way to the title game. In 2005 the Galaxy were the eighth seed and won the title.
Love it or hate it, this is life in Major League Soccer, where a team can overcome a horrendous stretch of play -- even one as bad as the Wizards had this season. And this season, they and their fans should be thankful for it.| Pete Grathoff, firstname.lastname@example.org