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Age-old contrast shows in MLS Cup

Chicago's offense vs. Kansas City's defense as league's best meet today.

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000

WASHINGTON -- It will be the best offense against the best defense in today's Major League Soccer championship game.

The Chicago Fire, the team with the most productive offense, also has one of the premier players in the world in Hristo Stoitchkov, and some coaches and general managers think his presence gives Chicago the edge over the Kansas City Wizards.

Stoitchkov's leadership since he came to the United States at the beginning of the season has been more evident in the playoffs. After playing only 18 games in the regular season because of injuries, Stoitchkov has 4 goals and 5 assists in 6 playoff games to put Chicago in position to capture its second MLS title in three years.

Chicago reached the title game by eliminating New England and New York/New Jersey in the playoffs, and Kansas City beat Colorado and Los Angeles. The Fire captured the league title as an expansion team in 1998; the Wizards are making their first title-game appearance.

The game provides an ideal matchup between teams that tied for a league best with 57 points. Chicago's 67 goals were the most in the league, and Kansas City's 29 goals allowed were the fewest. Wizards goalkeeper Tony Meola, voted the league's most valuable player, set a league record with 16 shutouts. Meola has allowed only four goals in six playoff games.

The experienced Meola in goal and Peter Vermes in the middle of the defense have made it difficult to score against the Wizards. But Meola and Vermes, both former MetroStars, and sensational rookie defender Nick Garcia could have their hands full because Chicago has so much firepower.

Along with Stoitchkov, who will play striker because Peter Nowak is healthy and will be the midfield playmaker, Chicago has dangerous scorers Ante Razov, Josh Wolff and Dema Kovalenko, who grew up in Ukraine and communicates with Stoitchkov in Russian.

Stoitchkov, a 34-year-old Bulgarian, and the 23-year-old Kovalenko are roommates on the road. Stoitchkov has taken a particular interest in Kovalenko, who helped Indiana to two NCAA titles.

"I think God sent him to Chicago to make me a better player and person," Kovalenko said of Stoitchkov. "I feel fortunate to be spending so much time with a player who was once considered the best player in the world."

Stoitchkov said an MLS title for Chicago was just as important to him as individual awards with several teams and collective success with clubs and his national team.

"It's one more game for me that I have to win," Stoitchkov said Friday. "We want to win this game and we want to win the double," he said, referring to the MLS Cup and Chicago's U.S. Cup final against Miami on Saturday.

There was one television crew waiting for the teams to arrive Friday, and it was from Spain. It wanted to interview Stoitchkov, who gained renown with Barcelona.

"This is not a challenge for us," Stoitchkov said of Kansas City's efficiency on defense. "They have to worry about how to stop our attack. They have to worry about how to defend against us."

Kansas City relies on the scoring of Miklos Molnar, who had 12 of the team's 47 regular-season goals. He has four in the playoffs.

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