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MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at Sporting Kansas City, a place in MLS Cup at stake

Nov 23, 2013, 4:30 PM EDT

Graham Zusi, Mike Chabala
  • 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and Univision Deportes
  • Kickoff temperatures will be in the 20s
  • The first leg of this aggregate goals series finished in a 0-0 draw
  • Saturday’s survivor earns a spot in MLS Cup 2013; Kansas City would host the league championship it advances
  • Houston has eliminated Sporting KC from the last two playoffs

(Originally posted Friday afternoon)

If it seems like we’ve been here before – Houston visiting Sporting Kansas City in a huge, tense MLS playoff encounter – it’s because we have. Players and coaches from Houston will be drawing on the fond memories, in fact of recent, previous post-season face-offs between these two.

Sporting Kansas City types … not so much.

It’s hard to escape the history factor in this series, so fresh of memory and so meaningful. This is where Sporting KC’s seasons died in 2011 and 2012, in high-stakes matches at Sporting Park on the Midwest city’s outskirts.

It’s all on the line once again on Saturday as Houston visits Kansas City in the second leg of the teams’ aggregate goals Eastern Conference final series. The first leg finished 0-0, which makes it “Advantage KC” for the back half of this one. (If does if you can avoid considering all that recent history, that is, a backdrop that makes things lean a bit more Houston’s way.)

A spot in MLS Cup 2011 was on the line two years ago when the teams met at what was then called Livestrong Sporting Park. Houston’s Andre Hainault and Carlo Costly (neither of whom remain with the club) scored in a game also remembered for an injury to Brad Davis, which took the Dynamo’s best attacker out of the subsequent league final. But Houston advanced that day to meet the L.A. Galaxy, leaving Kansas City and its relentless, pressing ways to wonder about what had gone wrong in a 2-0 loss at home.

(MORE: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of tonight’s match)

A year later, the teams met again in the same park, this time in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a two-leg aggregate set, just like this year’s. Kansas City needed a two-goal win to even the series that night; the Dynamo had prevailed by a 2-0 margin in the opening leg. This one looked quite different, with Kansas City completely dominating (a 20-3 advantage in shots provides a fair, accurate snapshot) but doing no better than a 1-0 win. That left Kansas City eliminated (2-1 on aggregate) and put Houston on a path to a second consecutive MLS Cup appearance.

Kansas City has the look of a team that could play for the championship, a tough-minded, tactically wise bunch that also happens to be the league’s top defensive side. In fact, those loses convinced KC manager Peter Vermes to re-think his team’s commitment to all-out, high-pressure soccer. Now his teams play with just a little more possession and press high more selectively.

Still, at some point those sharp edges of recent history surely must work on some minds around the Kansas City locker room. “The great thing for us,” Vermes said late this week, “is that we don’t have a deficit to overcome, which was the case a year ago.”

(MORE: Notes on the Houston Dynamo ahead of tonight’s match)

The weather will have a fall playoff feel; high tomorrow in Kansas City is expected to be in the low 30s, with temperatures by game time falling perhaps into the upper 20s. The night should be dry, at least.

The other oddity about this one is the big break involved. Both teams had been quite busy in the run-up to the uneventful 0-0 draw in Houston – but there has been almost two full weeks since that one. So the teams will be better rested, at least. Both were cautious or tired or both to open the series, and the result was a contest where the teams evenly divided a total of just six shots on target. It was hardly an advertisement for open, attractive, flowing soccer.

With plenty of time to restore the legs and lungs, not to mention the cold temperatures that will help players stay on the move, Saturday’s match inside a sold out building should have more energy about it. It will, that is, unless the break makes things weird.

“There’s been a lot of time to think about this one,” Vermes said. “We want to play! It’s not easy to navigate the two weeks leading up to this game, keeping the guys sharp.”

The contest certainly has enough star power, with Kansas City center back Matt Besler and playmaker Graham Zusi set to lead the home team. Both were excused from U.S. national team duty over the past week and a half to ensure readiness for this one.

Injuries (well, one in particular) will be a huge influence in how this one plays out; Dynamo do-all midfielder Ricardo Clark remains questionable. This side of U.S. midfielder Brad Davis or perhaps goalkeeper Tally Hall, there is no more important Houston figure.

  1. 76bean - Nov 22, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    I’m very concerned about the health of Clark, Bruin, and Sarkodie. Houston can get it done in KC if all are healthy. I expect an all out battle.

  2. hildezero - Nov 22, 2013 at 5:59 PM

    I think a lot of people are tired of Houston.

    • 76bean - Nov 22, 2013 at 8:26 PM

      I know a lot of teams that are sick to death of Houston.

  3. hildezero - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:17 PM

    Na, that’s not what I meant. I meant that people are tired of “always being” Houston. They can’t even fill their stadium.

    • 76bean - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:33 PM

      Fill their stadium? LOL
      What does that have to do with anything? They have some of the highest attendance records in MLS. They also have the silverware. I think it’s just more sour grapes.

  4. hildezero - Nov 22, 2013 at 11:01 PM

    Yeah! Fill their stadium. That’s embarrassing. XD Look at the first leg versus NYRB. Pft. “What does that have to do with anything” Ha! Fans like that don’t deserve silverware. Remember the MLS Cup final in 2011? Exactly. Besides, Houston is a team with just full of luck.

    • gra42 - Nov 23, 2013 at 7:41 PM

      Houstonians cry about not having rain, but we don’t drive in it when it arrives. You’d know if you were from here.

    • 76bean - Nov 23, 2013 at 7:49 PM

      Haters gonna hate. Sour grapes LOL

  5. joeyt360 - Nov 23, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    I admit I’m a little bored by Houston’s pattern of late: so-so regular season; catch other teams over-committing in playoffs; get to Final, where they finally find a team that is as disciplined as they are, but much more talented.

    • gra42 - Nov 23, 2013 at 7:17 PM

      You mean, “get to final, right before or after losing a team MVP to injury”? So you have a problem with the Dynamo’s preparation and peaking? Guess it must suck to support a team that still hasn’t figured it out after what, 20 years of MLS league play? That’s gotta be bitter that even a non-soccer type like yourself picks it out, but your local heroes are deaf, dumb and blind. Good luck next year.

      Seriously though, K.C.’s a legit team that deserves a better route to the final than through Houston. Put them in the Western Conf., and this year they go for sure. As it is, this will be one of the sporting contests of 2013 without Clark. I predict the final will be anticlimactic.

      I also want to point out something that a lot of people seem confused over about Houston, especially the haters who don’t follow sorts, soccer, or athletics, and have no background in kinesioology: Houston doesn’t need a small field like they have at home. Sure they’ve adapted to it and the Houston heat/humidity, they take advantage of that familiarity at home, but the reality is that they are always the most top to bottom athletic team in the MLS. They win most contests for space by the time they reach every post-season. A bigger field actually serves the type of player Kinnear develops better. There haven’t been any teams ever in the MLS as good at systematically closing down spaces and winning 50-50 balls that I’ve ever seen. Do they do well at home? Yes. Do they do well on the road traditionally in the playoffs, in terms of scoring, possession and 50-50 ball control? You tell me how many 5-10 yard races they lose tonight.

    • gra42 - Nov 23, 2013 at 7:43 PM

      Oh damb. Cam Weaver. I knew I had butterflies for a reason. Look for a sub just before or after the half, unless he bags one off an uncontested header.

    • gra42 - Nov 23, 2013 at 10:24 PM

      Yep. I read on the SB thread from one man who thought a team starting Weaver will never make an MLS final. I don’t know Weaver, nothing against him, but he wouldn’t start on some teams I’ve been on since high school. One man down from the opening whistle and still a good match, though.

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