For the third year running (and the fourth time in six years) Kansas City's path to the MLS Cup will go through the Houston Dynamo.
The Kansas City Star
The end result has always been heartache.
The memories are so fresh, many Sporting KC fans won't need their memories jogged. The names alone are enough to send cold shivers. Carlo Costly. Adam Moffatt. Will Bruin. Brad Davis.
And here we are again.
Will this year be any different? If Kansas City wants to make and host the MLS Cup Final it will have to be.
Here are the tactical questions looming over this matchup.
1. Is this the year that Peter Vermes solves Dominic Kinnear's tactical game plan?
Kinnear has personally had Vermes' number, essentially setting the blueprint for handling Kansas City's high-pressure system in 2011. (Play deep, push the play wide, isolate the central forward and muck everything up in the middle of the park.)
But results this season were tilted to Kansas City. In the three matches, Kansas City went 1-0-2 including handing the Dynamo its first MLS loss at BBVA Compass Stadium. The two teams drew 1-1 in Kansas City and, in the third match in late October, drew 0-0 in Houston.
We might have gotten a peak already this year at how Vermes will set up the team for the difficult first leg in Houston. Kansas City played against type in both games.
In both matches, Kansas City ceded possession to the Dynamo (55% to 44% in the win, 60% to 40% in the draw). For the season, Sporting KC averaged 55 percent possession (50% on the road).
Kansas City also turned in below average numbers in shots (11 and 4; season average: 15) and passing accuracy (61% and 64%: season average: 78%).
Some of that can be credited to Houston being a good home team with a stout defense and a ball-control offense.
But it also shows Kansas City have been selectively pragmatic in its approach to playing Houston this year: protecting the back line, looking for counter-attack chances and relying on set-piece work.
How did KC score it's only goal this year in Houston? Off a Seth Sinovic long throw.
Will Kinnear have a new wrinkle to bring to town? Will Vermes revert back to the attacking style that worked so well in the second leg against New England? Should be a very interesting chess match on Saturday.
2. Can Kansas City dial back its intensity?
After Wednesday, doesn't it just seem like the team is more comfortable playing all-out? That style creates chances. It's fun to watch. It puts the other team on the back foot. And the pressure seems to bring out the best in aggressive-minded players like Aurelien Collin and Graham Zusi.
This next series, however, requires the exact opposite of what we saw against New England, as the Dynamo prey on teams that try to do too much and extend themselves into the attacking third.
On that goal from last year's playoff loss, both Chance Myers and Collin gamble attacking the ball looking to create a quick turnover, leaving Matt Besler, Julio Cesar and Sinovic stressed to cope with the rush. On that goal, Will Bruin finds the right pocket between Besler and Sinovic. Way too easy.
If Kansas City tries to pile numbers forward, Houston will counter by moving the ball quickly into the spaces left behind. If Kansas City commits too many fouls outside the box, Brad Davis will likely make them pay with his incisive left foot.
Kansas City will need patience and discipline. Those haven't often been the hallmarks of this team.
3. Which team will be the most tired?
Sam McDowell wrote about it on Friday morning: Kansas City is a tired team. Not only did KC play 120 minutes on Wednesday. KC played 120 minutes with the volume turned up to 11.
With the quick turnaround, KC spent most of Thursday in recovery mode.
"We need more recovery than usual for sure," Vermes said. "The guys put a lot of work into that game. Part of it is the extra time we played, but its the effort you put into that time as well. And the effort was major. Thats why we need the extra time."
The team that best understands KC's predicament? Houston. Saturday will be the Dynamo's fourth game in 10 days. And they played a hard-fought 120-minute match on the road too.
The biggest advantage KC has in this match? A deeper bench. This year, the Dynamo are very reliant on their normal starting XI (seven players have more than 30 appearances, captain Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia would've made it but for international call-ups this summer).
Against New York, Kinnear used the same three substitutes in both games: Andrew Driver (left midfielder), Omar Cummings (forward) and Cam Weaver (forward). Weaver and Cummings were the Dynamo's most-used subs during the regular season. Driver and Warren Creavalle (who is now a starter) are the next two most used. The bench is short of difference makers after that. With regular left back Corey Ashe out (yellow-card accumulation), that bench is only going to look more shallow. (Veteran Mike Chabala will likely get the call.)
Kansas City, on the other hand, brought Claudio Bieler, Soony Saad and Ike Opara off the bench on Wednesday. All have been regular starters at some point this season. Thanks to a regular rotation policy, extra fixtures and international call-ups, Vermes had 17 players with more than 10 appearances (and only four with more than 30 Jimmy Nielsen, Oriol Rosell, Seth Sinovic and Aurelien Collin).
Vermes will have limited options in midfield, however, as Rosell remains the only truly fit option. Paulo Nagamura, who was excellent in his return, wasn't supposed to go the full 90 minutes. He went 97. Can he make a quick turnaround and go for another 50-60 minutes again? Feilhaber hasn't been a regular down the stretch and wasn't usually a 90-minute player this year anyway but he gave an inspired 120-minute performance culminating in creating the 113th-minute winner. I expect Vermes will go with that trio if he can. The other options? Zusi moving back or pushing Ike Opara into a defensive-midfielder role.* Neither are optimal in a difficult road test.
*This idea was proposed the other day in the office by former SKC beat writer Tod Palmer. Opara came on late on Wednesday to play that role and didn't look uncomfortable. He's got pace and is a pretty reliable passer.
Will Vermes opt for some of those "fresher" legs on Saturday? Bieler is still coming back into form and has played just over 30 minutes the last month. Or perhaps Vermes can use the rested legs of Teal Bunbury (didn't play on Wednesday) to push the attack forward?
Vermes has options to create variety and surprise up top. I'm not sure Kinnear has the same.