By J Hutcherson (June 16, 2020) US Soccer Players - Major League Soccer decided early on that its version of parity would make them the league of no dynasties. To their single-entity way of thinking, this was a good thing. No dynasties meant no dominant teams defining their new league. They were wrong. DC United was the first MLS dynasty and the LA Galaxy was right there with them. Chicago emerged as the potential expansion dynasty, winning in 1998 and getting back to the final in 2000. That's where they ran into the Kansas City Wizards. Relying on a player who lifted the trophy and made his exit, the question worth asking is were they any good?
The 1998 expansion brought MLS to a dozen teams, but it was still a league with clear issues. One of them was the Kansas City Wiz turned Wizards. Playing at Arrowhead Stadium, the team had issues getting enough fans in the building to make it look occupied. Finishing last in the Western Conference in 1999 with the second-worst record in the league didn't help. Kansas City was an organization in trouble, always in the conversation for problems the league needed to solve. What would happen if they won was an open question. This was a league dominated by DC United and the LA Galaxy, with the Chicago Fire pulling off a shock run in their expansion season. A year later, Chicago was a 3rd-place team out of the playoffs in the opening round. Regular service had resumed with DC beating the Galaxy in MLS Cup. There was no expectation that would change in 2000. What did was MLS insisting that ties shouldn't count. The shootout was history.
USMNT goalkeeper Tony Meola moved from the MetroStars to the Wizards in 1999 but injury kept him out of the lineup. For 2000, he was their #1 goalkeeper, returning to form that would earn him a spot on the 2002 World Cup squad. In front of him was Peter Vermes, now a defender and one of the best in the league. The USMNT links continued in midfield with Preki and Chris Henderson. Up top, Mo Johnston remained as a scoring threat, a veteran by MLS standards who joined Kansas City for its first season. That setup was better than the 1999 edition, but it wouldn't exactly convince anybody that a playoff run was on the horizon. The potential for the Wizards changed when they signed Miklos Molnar. Though the expectation was that they would lose the Danish international for Euro 2000, what he brought to the club was a consistent scorer. With Molnar in the lineup, Kansas City was suddenly an elite MLS team.
The regular season
In what would bookend their season, Kansas City began 2000 with a 4-3 home win over the Fire. Molnar scored his first MLS goal in that game, getting his second in a 3-0 home win over Colorado to start with six points. A scoreless draw at Miami on April 8 and another at LA on May 6 were the only times the Wizards didn't win during a 12-game undefeated run to start the season. That ended on June 4 with a 3-2 loss at Chicago. With Molnar in Europe, Kansas City ran into problems. They won once in nine games from June 4 through July 19, losing the last three in a row and calling their hot start into question. This was still MLS, a league that leaves clubs plenty of room for improvement regardless of their record. The Wizards turned it around, losing only twice over their final 11 games and winning the West by seven points over the Galaxy. The Chicago Fire had the same number of points in the Central Division with 57, but it was Kansas City winning the Supporters' Shield.
While the Galaxy entered the playoffs as the 2nd-place team in the West, the defending champions DC missed them entirely. United finished bottom of the Eastern Division with the second-worst record in the league. With DC no longer a threat, Kansas City faced a field where the Galaxy and the Fire loomed. It started with a quarterfinal series with Colorado. MLS used a three-game setup in the quarterfinals and semifinals with the first to five points advancing. Kansas City took game one 1-0 at home with Molnar scoring. Game two ended scoreless, setting up a game three. In front of an announced crowd of 4,156 at Arrowhead, Chris Henderson, Molnar, and Francisco Gomez had the home side up 3-0 in the 69th minute. Colorado responded with a goal in the 70th and a stoppage time penalty but was unable to force sudden death extra time. That scenario would loom in the next round.
The Wizards vs the Galaxy
LA had seen off the Mutiny with two wins and no problems. Game one of the semifinals ended scoreless at Kansas City. A 1-1 draw in game two forced extra time with the Galaxy scoring the golden goal. That set up a must win situation for the Wizards in game two to send the series to extra time. Molnar did the job with a 22nd minute penalty and once again was the hero with the golden goal. Sporting knocked out the Galaxy in sudden death extra time with the series officially ending 4-4.
The other side of the bracket
Chicago had an easier time on their side of the playoff bracket. Though they lost the second game of their quarterfinal series with the New England Revolution, Chicago took game three 6-0. With their own star joining the team in 2000, Hristo Stoitchkov was part of a potent offense with Ante Razov scoring 18 times in the regular season and Dema Kovalenko added 10 goals. Stoitchkov was good for 9, with the Fire leading the league with 67 goals. The Wizards finished with 47. The problem for the Fire was that they let in 51 goals, losing the Supporters' Shield to the Wizards on goal difference by two goals. In the semifinals, Chicago beat the MetroStars 3-0 in the opener only to lose 2-0 at Giants Stadium. Game three saw Chicago take a 2-0 lead with the Metrostars equalizing before halftime. Razov scored in the 88th minute to send the Fire to their second MLS Cup in three seasons.
Kansas City vs Chicago
The two teams tied for the best regular season record ended up playing for the 2000 MLS Cup at RFK Stadium on October 15. Chicago's sometimes porous defense ran up against a Kansas City team centered on the play of Miklos Molnar. Stop him, stop the Wizards. Chicago didn't, with Molnar scoring in the 11th minute. Chicago responded with an all-out assault on the Kansas City goal. 20 shots to 6 in favor of the Fire, with Tony Meola taking MVP honors with the shutout. Molnar would say farewell to pro soccer after the game, leaving the Wizards without their key contributor. They would make the playoffs in 2001 as the 3rd-place team with a -20 goal difference and a first round exit. Chicago would win the Central again, knocked out by the Galaxy in the semifinals. 2000 would be their last trip to an MLS Cup final with Bob Bradley exiting for the MetroStars following the 2002 season. In real terms, the Wizards ended what might have been a Chicago dynasty in their one opportunity to disrupt the league.
So how good was Kansas City in 2000?
Nobody is going to look back on the 2000 MLS Cup as a celebration of creative soccer. Kansas City coach Bob Gansler took a pragmatic approach. A goal from the obvious source early, and then lock the game down against a superior offense. It worked, but it wasn't the kind of impressive display that stamps a successful season. The Wizards relied on their defense more than their offense throughout 2000. Meola won the league MVP award, Goalkeeper of the Year, and Comeback Player of the Year with Peter Vermes taking Defender of the Year and Gansler Coach of the Year. What Molnar added was a decisiveness that made the difference between a balanced team capable of a playoff run and the MLS champions. There's a strong argument that the 2000 Kansas City Wizards are the best single-season team in MLS history. For that version of the story to work, all the weight is on Molnar. It's not quite true. What Gansler was building would've been different with Meola healthy in 1999 and continued without Molnar. Kansas City would be back in an MLS Cup final in 2004, not quite a dynasty but also not a one-season wonder.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
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- How good was the ’01 Miami Fusion?
Logo courtesy of Sporting Kansas City