Six months and 36 games after it first stepped onto the field, the Los Angeles Galaxy is 90 minutes away from a place in Major League Soccer's championship game.
"That's the arithmetic of it," Galaxy defender Dan Calichman said Thursday night after the Galaxy had beaten the Kansas City Wiz, 2-1, in front of a Rose Bowl crowd of 25,212 in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
"This was obviously a big win for us. It was a great effort out there tonight by everybody. I think we played a very smart game, a good team game. I was impressed out there."
Particularly impressive was the winning goal, which came on a blistering, 25-yard shot by Greg Vanney in the 57th minute. The ball flew off Vanney's foot and flashed inside the left goal post before Kansas City could react.
"I wasn't really surprised it went in," Vanney said. "I was surprised they didn't close me down. Now we have a chance to go at them in Kansas City, and if we win, we end it. If not, we come back here and we're on our home turf."
Game 2 is Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Wiz has beaten the Galaxy twice this year. If a third game is needed, it will be next Thursday at the Rose Bowl.
Galaxy Coach Lothar Osiander praised Vanney's shot as "a major hammer," but reserved most of his compliments for Chris Armas, who scored the first Galaxy goal and did a good job guarding Preki, Kansas City's most dangerous player."
"Preki only got away from him once," Osiander said. "He scored that time, but we can forgive him [Armas] that."
Osiander kept Eduardo Hurtado on the bench for the first half, the Galaxy's leading goal scorer having arrived in Los Angeles only a few hours beforehand after playing for Ecuador in a 1-0 World Cup '98 qualifying loss to Colombia in Quito on Wednesday night and getting up at 4 a.m. for the flight back to California.
Hurtado's absence had two effects: it created more interplay and movement among the Galaxy forwards and midfielders because they no longer were seeking out a single target man and it meant there was not one truly dangerous shot on goal.
The Galaxy played fluid, attacking soccer, backed by what was mostly a sound defense. But it couldn't finish the chances it created. Cobi Jones, Harut Karapetyan and Armas each had a couple of shots, but they either went high, wide or were saved by Wiz goalkeeper Garth Lagerwey.
At the other end, Jorge Campos made one superb save, flinging himself to his right to tip away a fierce shot from Paul Wright. It was the best save of the night.
Hurtado came on for the second 45 minutes and, coincidentally or not, it was as if someone had electrified the field. The intensity rose a notch or two and suddenly the goals flowed.
The Galaxy was first on the board. A free kick by Mauricio Cienfuegos in the 48th minute was headed out by Kansas City defender Matt McKeon and the ball fell to Armas, about 20 yards out. Armas hit it on the half-volley and his shot flew inside the left post. The crowd erupted in a shower of noise and shredded paper.
But Kansas City had beaten the Galaxy in three of four games during the regular season and was not about to fold. Within four minutes, the Wiz had tied it up.
It was, not surprisingly, Preki who did the damage, weaving his way through three Galaxy players with another mesmerizing run before slotting the ball just inside the right post, beyond Campos' reach.
Robin Fraser said the inclusion of Hurtado in the second half had spurred the Galaxy and given the Wiz someone else to worry about.
"I think whether he's tired, whether he's near-dead, whether he's full of energy, he's the biggest person in the league and he's a workload for whoever has to guard him, regardless of what his physical condition is," Fraser said.
"He came in attracted a lot of attention, ran a few people over, played some good balls off and definitely helped us in holding possession up front."
Kansas City Coach Ron Newman was left pondering what he claimed were missed calls by referee Brian Hall and the fact that the Galaxy goals came from unexpected sources.
"We had their key players covered," Newman said, "and they went and got one from Vanney. He's got a great shot, but then so do some of our players."
Sunday will tell.
* BILL PLASCHKE: The Galaxy brings a home team in the truest sense to the city. C14