By THOMAS FLOYD
If Sporting Kansas City is going to exorcise the demons of an MLS Cup run cut short a year ago, it seems natural, really, that the club must best the Houston Dynamo along the way.
It was the Dynamo, after all, who upset top-seeded Kansas City with a 2-0 win at Livestrong Sporting Park in last season’s conference final. Although Sporting topped the East again this year with an 18-7-9 mark and Houston, at 14-9-11, is the No. 5 seed, this has all the makings of a nip-and-tuck series.
While Kansas City, with a league-best defense led by goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen and the centerback duo of Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, always keeps matters clean in the back, Dominic Kinnear’s Houston side knows how to tighten up in the postseason, as evidenced by its 2-1 triumph at Chicago in the knockout round Wednesday.
It would surprise few, then, if this series came down to the set-piece proficiency of Kansas City’s Graham Zusi and Houston’s Brad Davis. Expect the goals to be few but the tension to be bountiful.
Here is a breakdown of the Eastern Conference semifinal series:
SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO
First leg at Houston: Sunday, 3:30 p.m., NBC
Second leg at Kansas City: Wednesday, 9 p.m., MLS Live/Direct Kick
SEASON SERIES: Houston claimed the season series with a 1-0-2 mark, as the teams played to a 0-0 draw July 7, a 2-1 Dynamo win on July 18, and a 1-1 tie on Sept. 14.
KEY PLAYERS – SPORTING: M/F Graham Zusi (five goals, 15 assists), GK Jimmy Nielsen, D Matt Besler, D Aurelien Collin, M Roger Espinoza, F Kei Kamara (11 goals, eight assists) DYNAMO: M Brad Davis (eight goals, 12 assists), F Will Bruin (12 goals, four assists), M Ricardo Clark, M Oscar Boniek Garcia (four goals, six assists), GK Tally Hall.
OUTLOOK – Houston went undefeated at home this year, so a draw or even a narrow loss for Kansas City in the first leg won’t be the end of the world. In the second match, with the Dynamo going on the road to log their third playoff game in eight days, Kansas City should have ample opportunity to make up any ground.
PREDICTION – The Dynamo will execute Kinnear’s game plan before the BBVA Compass Stadium crowd, notching a 1-0 win in the first leg thanks to a tally off a Davis service. But Kei Kamara and C.J. Sapong will strike in a 2-1 SKC triumph in the return leg before Zusi puts home series’ overtime winner. Kansas City 3, Houston 2 (aggregate).