• WHO: Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo
• WHEN/WHERE: 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Sporting Park
• TV: NBC Sports Network
• FIRST LEG: 0-0. The fewer words written about the dull, scoreless draw back on Nov. 9, the better. Hopefully, an extra week of rest should lead to the second leg resembling an actual soccer match and not a competition for which team has the better long throw-in.
• ABOUT HOUSTON (14-11-9): The Dynamo have been a thorn in KC’s side, eliminating Sporting from the playoffs each of the last two seasons. The success is based off a simple gameplan of staying compact on defense, looking for counter attacks and taking advantage of set-piece opportunities. Houston’s best chance will likely come from Oscar Boniek Garcia operating on the right. The Honduran is a strong dribbler and a constant threat on the counter attack. Brad Davis, as most fans already know, is the most dangerous set-piece taker in MLS.
• ABOUT SPORTING KANSAS CITY (17-10-7): The strength for Sporting KC all year has been its defense, led by MLS defender of the year finalist Matt Besler and goalkeeper of the year finalist Jimmy Nielsen. The league’s stingiest unit did its job keeping Houston off the board in the first leg. However, in order for KC to advance, Peter Vermes will need one of his forwards to step up. In three playoff games, Vermes has started five different forwards. None have yet produced a goal. This is the time to start Claudio Bieler, the team’s leading scorer and the only forward to bag a goal these playoffs. The other options simply haven’t been productive.
• BOTTOM LINE: There has to be a winner. Which is good, because the last three matches between these two have ended in a draw (and just two goals scored). If this match ends in a draw after 90 minutes, two 15-minute periods of extra time will be played. After that? Penalty kicks.
To win, Sporting KC will need to learn from its previous heartbreaks, attack smartly and decisively, and avoid allowing set pieces around its own penalty area at all costs. Sporting will have a raucous, standing-room only crowd behind it and the knowledge that a win will guarantee the MLS Cup is played at Sporting Park. Houston, though, won’t be fazed by that raucous crowd. The perennial underdog is gunning for its third consecutive trip to the MLS Cup.
It won’t be a pretty game and it won’t be for those with weak hearts. But the home crowd, cold weather and superior defense should be enough to see Kansas City through. Finally.
• PREDICTION: Sporting Kansas City 1-0
| Charles Gooch, firstname.lastname@example.org