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Wolff Could Pull Fast One

Times Staff Writer

Here, courtesy of D.C. United captain and defender Ryan Nelsen, is a little nugget that Kansas City Wizard striker Josh Wolff can glue to his locker door Sunday ahead of Major League Soccer’s championship game at the Home Depot Center:

“We know Josh,” Nelsen said. “That’s the great thing about quick strikers -- you know it before you play them. It’s the smart ones you’ve got to worry about, because you don’t know what they’re going to do.

“We’ve played Josh a number of times ... it’s going to be just another day at the office for us.”

Hmm. Maybe so. Then again, maybe not.

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D.C. United will come into the near-sold out match as the likely favorite, if only because of the firepower it has displayed in 2004.

The Eastern Conference champions’ offensive options are many: Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian, Earnie Stewart, Freddy Adu, Christian Gomez, Ben Olsen, Dema Kovalenko ... the list is seemingly endless.

The Western Conference champion Wizards, on the other hand, are renowned for their defense. They were the stingiest team in MLS in 2004, giving up only 32 goals in 33 regular-season and playoff games.

Nelsen did not intend his comment about Wolff as an insult. He was merely making the point that as a defender it is perhaps easier to counteract speed than it is to defend against guile.

Wolff, 27, from Stone Mountain, Ga., can blow past opponents with ease, given half a chance. A player such as D.C. United’s Moreno, however, is crafty and unpredictable, and hence more difficult to contain.

The problem facing D.C. United is that the Wizards have developed the fast break to an art form this season. They rely on defense to win, but their transition from defense to offense is excellent, with Wolff and teammate Davy Arnaud at the forefront.

In other words, it’s not all going to be one-way traffic heading in Kansas City’s direction.

“Both of them are exciting players, actually very similar type players, I think,” Nelsen said. “Very quick, very sharp, nice touches, both have got an eye for the goal. So it’s going to be a lot of fun chasing them around.

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“We know that we’ve got to keep it very tight at the back. We know the way that they play and their strengths, and we’re going to have to combat that. I feel if we can keep it pretty clean at the back then we’ve got a very good chance of winning with the forwards we have.”

Wolff has been here before. Sunday’s game will be his third MLS Cup final. He won with the Chicago Fire in 1998, beating D.C. United at the Rose Bowl. He lost with the Fire in 2000, when Kansas City won in Washington.

Oddly enough, on Sunday, it will be Wolff’s former teammate and inspiration on those Chicago teams, Peter Nowak, who will be calling the shots as D.C. United’s rookie coach. If anyone knows Wolff and the danger he poses, it is Nowak, who played alongside him for five seasons.

Wolff showed his dangerous side early. He scored his first professional goal exactly two minutes into his MLS career.

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“From the beginning, I called him a little Michael Owen,” Nowak said, comparing Wolff to the former Liverpool and current Real Madrid striker known for his powerful running and equally lethal shooting.

“He was injured a lot and I know it wasn’t easy for him, but I’m really glad and I’m happy that he’s doing so well right now and playing for the national team. He’s a great professional. He’s very quiet, but he always does his job.”

Wolff, who led the Wizards with 10 goals and seven assists in the regular season, has been plagued by injuries in recent years, everything from torn ligaments to stress fractures.

But it wasn’t only the injuries that kept him from joining the caravan of U.S. players who have moved to Europe. The league long ago recognized Wolff’s value and, in pre-Adu days, he was one of the league’s highest-paid players.

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He is also still a fixture on the U.S. national team, a veteran of the 2002 World Cup who is likely to be in Germany in 2006 should the U.S qualify. For the moment, however, it is Sunday’s game that matters.

“D.C. has very capable forwards and attacking players,” Wolff said. “We’ll have our hands full but ... they’ll still have to deal with a pretty solid team in us. It’s going to be a battle.”

And it might well be Wolff firing the first shot.

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Award Winners

The 2004 MLS award winners (as chosen by league coaches, general managers, players and members of the media):

* MVP -- Amado Guevara, MetroStars

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* Rookie of the Year -- Clint Dempsey, New England

* Coach of the Year -- Greg Andrulis, Columbus

* Defender of the Year -- Robin Fraser, Columbus

* Goalkeeper of the Year -- Joe Cannon, Colorado

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* Comeback Player of the Year -- Brian Ching, San Jose

* Referee of the Year -- Abiodun Okulaja

* Fair Play Award -- Eddie Pope, MetroStars

* Humanitarian of the Year -- Chris Henderson, Colorado

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* Goal of the Year -- Dwayne De Rosario, San Jose (Aug. 7 vs. D.C. United)


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