KC Star: 2004 U.S. Open Cup

One-shot deal

Simutenkov's free kick in OT wins it

BOB LUDER   

It seemed, for a split second at the end, that the Wizards were frozen in time.

Igor Simutenkov's free kick from 21 yards out five minutes into the first overtime period made it cleanly through the Chicago Fire defensive wall. The ball hit the hands of Fire goalkeeper Henry Ring, bounced straight up off the crossbar, then back to the ground, deflecting off Ring's hand again.

When the ball - seemingly rolling in slow motion - crossed the goal line and rolled into the net, it was forward Josh Wolff who reacted first, sprinting with arms high in the air to meet Simutenkov. The rest of the Wizards quickly followed suit, realizing that they'd just defeated the Fire 1-0 for the championship of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The Wizards had done it. Not only did they win the second championship in franchise history - the other being the 2000 MLS Cup championship - but they did so this time in front of an announced 8,819 jubilant fans Wednesday night at Arrowhead Stadium.

"Before Igor took (the free kick), I said to Jimmy Conrad, `This might go in,'" said Wolff, who had been part of two previous Open Cup championships, coincidentally both with the Fire. "It didn't go in quite like I thought it would.

"I was sitting at the back door in case it came out. Obviously, I was extremely happy it went in. I'm happy for Igor. It was a great moment for him, a great moment for this organization."

Even Wizards coach Bob Gansler, a man who misses little happening on a soccer field, said he didn't realize the game had been won until he saw his players jumping on Simutenkov with joy.

"I couldn't see anything," he said. "It seemed like there were about 14 Fire players on that wall."

It was Wolff who was largely responsible for setting up the 95th-minute free kick. He was dashing with the ball toward the left top of the Chicago penalty area when he was taken down by Chicago defender Evan Whitfield.

Gansler said the decision to have Simutenkov take the free kick was a no-brainer.

"It was a shot for a right-footer," Gansler explained. "We know who has the best chance at those things."

Simutenkov, who has played sparingly this season after suffering a torn Achilles' tendon in the preseason, credited teammate Alex Zotinca with making a fake that split the Fire wall just enough for Simutenkov to slip his kick through.

"Alex Zotinca ducked," Simutenkov said, motioning his body as though he faked a move to his right. "I'm just happy it went in. For me, it's been a difficult year since surgery. I'm just really happy now. For me, it's my most important goal."

And, certainly the most important goal the Wizards have scored since Miklos Molnar's goal in the 11th minute in the 2000 MLS Cup final. That also resulted in a 1-0 victory over the Fire.

Wednesday's game also marked the return to the Wizards lineup of goalkeeper Tony Meola, who had missed the team's previous six matches -five MLS games and the Open Cup semifinal - while nursing a strained Achilles' tendon. Meola didn't have a lot to do - a fact that didn't help keep his injured area loose - facing just one shot on goal the entire night.

"I'm happy to get through that one," Meola said. "I've played this tournament so many times at all levels. It feels good to finally get it."

That feeling was shared with unbridled enthusiasm at the end of the match, as players ran up and down the field waving Wizards team flags, and proudly displayed the Dewar Trophy in front of the Cauldron, the section where the Mystics, the Wizards' raucous fan club, stand.

Despite being scoreless for 95 minutes, the match was entertaining for several good scoring opportunities by both sides throughout.

The Fire had its best scoring opportunity in the waning seconds of the first half when Logan Pause dashed into the right side of the Wizards' area. His shot made it under defender Nick Garcia and past a fallen Meola, but rolled inches wide of the left post.

The Wizards, however, had the better of the attack throughout the second half. Davy Arnaud, Jack Jewsbury, Kerry Zavagnin and Diego Gutierrez all had chances to score.

Chicago finished the game with an 8-1 advantage in corner kicks, but the Wizards led 5-1 in shots on goal.

In the end, the Wizards needed just one of those shots to go in.

"It's a one-goal kind of situation," Gansler said. "We've rehearsed those games, not on purpose. We came through some, including the semifinal (1-0 over the San Jose Earthquakes).

"Through this run, we were the better side. I congratulate my team."