By ALAN HAINKEL AND DAN KARELL
A budding rivalry takes a new step forward as Sporting Kansas City meets the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight season.
Both teams this season faced their fair share of adversity in the postseason already, with Sporting KC having to come back from a goal down on aggregate to win in extra time, whole the Dynamo came back from two deficits to the New York Red Bulls to outlast them in extra time too.
These two sides play just like their veteran hard-nosed coaches. Every 50/50 challenge is a battle, as is the second ball off those challenges. Only three goals were scored between the clubs during their season series and with a two-legged series ahead with two tired clubs, there’s a chance for more goals against a weary pair of defenses.
Aurelien Collin is surprisingly leading Sporting KC in the goals scored column in the postseason, but also tied for the lead for the Dynamo in goals is Omar Cummings, who has come off the bench twice in a row and scored.
Here’s a closer look at this series match-up:
Sporting Kansas City’s league-leading defense allowed the Houston Dynamo to score only one goal in the three regular season meetings between the two clubs in 2013.
On May 12, Sporting KC became the first visiting team to win in Houston since Columbus left Robertson Stadium with a 2-0 victory on June 18, 2011, a span of 36 matches in all competitions. The lone tally of the match that evening was defender Aurelien Collin, who is currently tied with Will Bruin and Omar Cummings of the Houston Dynamo with two postseason goals.
The other two meetings between the clubs both ended in draws. The one match at Sporting Park ended knotted at 1-1, goals from Bruin and the now-departed Kei Kamara. The last match at BBVA Compass Stadium in October was a scoreless affair.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
SPORTING KC: Aurelien Collin (3 goals, 1 assist in regular season, 2 goals, 1 assist in postseason), Graham Zusi (6 goals, 8 assists in regular season, 0 goals 1 assist in postseason), C.J. Sapong (4 goals, 2 assists in regular season, 0 goals, 1 assist in postseason); DYNAMO: Brad Davis (4 goals, 9 assists in regular season, 1 goal, 0 assists in postseason), Will Bruin (8 goals, 7 assists in regular season, 2 goals, 0 assists in postseason), Ricardo Clark (4 goals, 4 assists in regular season, 1 goal, 1 assist in postseason)
MATCH-UP TO WATCH
Will Bruin vs. Aurelien Collin/Matt Besler. The big-bodied Bruin loves to use his stocky frame to create space for himself, but he has faster speed than one thinks when they look at him. The Sporting KC center backs held Bruin scoreless in the three regular season meetings, but with everyone playing with tired legs, it will be a test of who has more left in the tank. One mistake by Collin or Besler and Bruin can end a series on his own.
Claudio Bieler and Paulo Nagamura. The series-winner that Bieler scored was his first goal since a penalty kick in September, but the goal against the Revolution was his first from the run of play since July. If Bieler can get minutes and can get the service he likes, he could prove to be a difference maker.
Nagamura made his first appearance for Sporting KC since September 7 and went 97 minutes. Manager Peter Vermes said, “He’s an absolute warrior and he’s something that we’ve been missing for a long time in the middle of the midfield and it’s great to have him back out there because he really is an important player in our group and in the way we play.” With the injury to Lawrence Olum in the first leg of the semifinal and the questions about the health of Peterson Joseph, how much Vermes is able to get out of Nagamura will be a key to this series.
On the Dynamo side, the X-Factors have to be Brad Davis and Omar Cummings. The veteran left midfielder is set (along with many of his teammates) to play his fifth game in 14 days, an insane run set up by Major League Soccer’s playoff schedule. Davis played the full 120 minutes on Wednesday as well, but if he can recover in time to face Sporting KC, he’ll of course be a man that can whip in any kind of ball into the box, or score one himself like he did at Red Bull Arena.
Cummings meanwhile has scored a goal in two straight games, both of them not pretty but just doing enough to push the ball over the line. He’s been the definition of an impact sub and if Aurelien Collin or Matt Besler let their guard down late, Cummings can pull a fast one and score another key Dynamo goal.
By Alan Hainkel
If there’s one thing Sporting KC and Houston can take comfort in is they both played 120 minutes on Wednesday and both have to travel to Houston and play on short rest.
If Sporting KC can play against Houston the way they did Wednesday against New England, they would stand a good chance of moving on to host MLS Cup. The one thing they will not lack is motivation. Houston has knocked Sporting KC out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and a total of three times (the then-Wizards lost to Houston in the Western Conference final in 2007).
One thing you notice listening to Peter Vermes is the level of respect he has, not only for the Houston Dynamo in general, but specifically for Dominic Kinnear. “I think he does a good job with his team,” Vermes said. “They’re always prepared in the big games, and I think that’s what you, you know, want your team to be able to do. All their players play hard and I respect that. It’s not easy to get your team to do that week after week after week.”
What Sporting KC needs to do to be able to win this series is to play their game, which is a high tempo, high pressure style of play that attempts to pin their opponent back in their own defensive third. It worked well on Wednesday to the tune of almost 75 percent possession in the first half. It didn’t hurt that New England was held under 60 percent on their passing efficiency.
Sporting KC also depends on their players being what Vermes calls “Sporting fit.” It became evident in extra time on Wednesday as it appeared New England was simply running out of gas. That fitness level will play a part in the first leg with the quick turnaround.
By Dan Karell
Houston Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear’s playoff magic worked again last Wednesday as the Dynamo pulled out an improbable 2-1 (4-3) victory after extra time against the New York Red Bulls.
The Dynamo now are set for their fifth game in two weeks and captain Brad Davis admits that the side are feeling the fixture pile-up in their legs, but he believes it’s more of a mental issue than a physical one.
“For us, obviously, the guys are feeling like they played 120 minutes a couple nights ago,” Davis told reporters on a conference call. “So, it’s been difficult with a quick turnaround at this time of the year. That’s what you get. You get games right after one another. It is what it is.
“Both teams have to handle it. It’s a quick turnaround. I think it’s going to be more a mental thing than a physical thing at times. I think the guys are a little bit sore, but I don’t think they care about it much. Really, we’re looking forward to the game.”
Peter Vermes’ side broke the Dynamo’s 36-match unbeaten run at home last May, and the Dynamo just couldn’t break through the intrepid defense of Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler. Will Bruin, who scored twice against the defensively poor Montreal Impact in the knockout round and has scored six goals in the MLS playoffs during his career, failed to find the net against the Red Bulls and hasn’t scored this season against Sporting KC either.
In a game with two physical teams, Kinnear commented that the game could be won and lost in set pieces. Cummings scored his first of the playoffs off a corner kick at home against the Red Bulls, and the only win that Sporting KC had this season against the Dynamo came off a Collin goal on a long throw-in from Matt Besler, essentially like a set piece.
“I think that set pieces will be a big part of these two games – who takes advantage of mistakes when mistakes happen,” Kinnear said on the conference call. “I think the more you play in the playoffs, the less mistakes you need to make as has been shown it leads to victory.”
Oscar Boniek Garcia, who has been in and out of the team this season thanks to international call-ups, is rounding into form and while the Honduran may be underrated nationally, the Dynamo know how important he is to their success. Boniek Garcia put in two hard-nosed performances that helped the team defeat the Red Bulls, and maybe even more importantly for the Dynamo, Eric Brunner stepped into the starting lineup for the last three games in place of the injured Jermaine Taylor, producing solid performances.
Kinnear wants to see his team rise to the challenge, playing physically but also being a team that can still play their own brand of soccer, using the wings to deliver balls into the middle for Will Bruin or Omar Cummings.
“We have to match them physically, because if you don’t, they’re a very strong team. Also, we have to play football. It’s important that you just don’t turn it into a fight. You have to play correctly and use the ball. I think we have the players that can do that.”
The first leg of the series takes place on Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium at 2:30pm (ET), with the second leg returning to Sporting Park after the international break on August 23 at 7:30pm (ET).