It doesn't have to be pretty. It doesn't have to be an impressive, attractive masterpiece. It doesn't have to be by a big scoreline. It doesn't even have to be a regulation win if the match ends in a draw, two 15-minute halves of extra time will be played with penalty kicks to follow.
The Kansas City Star
But, thanks to the 0-0 scoreline in Houston way back on Nov. 9, a simple win tonight at Sporting Park over the Houston Dynamo means Sporting KC will make its third MLS Cup final and its first since 2004. It would also be the first time for Kansas City to host the Cup finals.
Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. (But as you've likely heard by now, you should make sure you're in your seat by 6:20. Maybe there are more fireworks in store. Maybe the ownership group is rigging up a massive over-the-roof space heater to keep the frost from forming on the seats.)
So, how can Kansas City win tonight?
1. Peter Vermes must get his forward rotation right.
In three playoff games, Vermes has started a different forward trio in each game: C.J. Sapong, Teal Bunbury and Jacob Peterson in New England; Sapong, Dom Dwyer and Graham Zusi for second leg against the Revs at Sporting Park; and Peterson, Bunbury and Zusi down in Houston.
Will he go for a fourth-different trio this time? You have to figure that Zusi (Kansas City's best creative option) will be a given. Sapong, with his obvious athletic presence to trouble the Dynamo's fullbacks, should get a chance too over Soony Saad. Which likely leaves the biggest question mark at the central forward spot where Dwyer has been featured over Claudio Bieler since September.
Dwyer has been a Vermes favorite because he runs and runs and runs. But his track record with Sporting KC this year (one MLS goal, one CONCACAF Champions League goal) pales to his record at the USL Pro level (15 goals in 13 appearances with Orlando City).
Is it time for Bieler the only forward to score in these playoffs for KC to be re-inserted into the lineup? Kansas City brought the Argentine in to score goals in big matches. This is a big match. Kansas City needs goals.
The other options either A) haven't got a proven track record Dwyer and Saad or B) haven't been effective in front of goal Bunbury and Sapong. Which makes Bieler tactical omission previously or whatever the obvious pick.
Despite everything I've just written, I fully expect Vermes to use Dywer in between Sapong and Zusi. Dywer gives the team speed, hustle and pressure at the forward spot. And, who knows, maybe he can recreate a little of the big-game magic he developed at Orlando City this summer. In the USL Pro championship game, Dwyer scored a hat trick and assisted on another goal as the Lions defeated the Charlotte Eagles 7-4.
I expect Bieler will be used as a potential game-changing substitute in the second half.
2. The defense must negate the impact of Oscar Boniek Garcia.
Houston attacks primarily down the right-hand side, leaning into the Honduran's natural creativity and dribbling strength. While his 2013 stats aren't jaw dropping (four goals, seven assists in 26 games including the playoffs), the field tilts to his side when he's on the field.
In the last two matches against Kansas City, the Dynamo have attacked down Garcia's flank nearly half time (47 percent and 49 percent). While Seth Sinovic is an above-average defender at left back, in the first leg he had the help of Jacob Peterson deployed as a defensive winger to occupy and help track Garcia.
With Kansas City in need of goals, Peterson likely won't be in the Starting XI. Can Sapong or Zusi do enough to help chip in on Garcia to help Sinovic? Kansas City also needs to be careful about barging too far forward. Garcia has the speed and decisiveness to be a one-man counter attack into the space left behind.
3. The defense must, at all costs, avoid fouling on the edge of the box.
Brad Davis is a bad, bad man with a lethal left foot. Corner kicks and free kicks near the 18-yard box with guys like Will Bruin, Warren Creavale and Bobby Boswell to aim at? Trouble. Kansas City recorded the highest fouls-per game in the league (15) this year and, often, find themselves toeing a fine line on tackles in those dangerous areas. Especially Aurelien Collin.
Will Kansas City win?
After flip-flopping and waffling pretty much this entire week, I think yes, Kansas City will win. Do I "believe" that they will win? Not completely. Houston are a veteran team that seem unfazed by Kansas City's pressure. They've got the requisite counter-attacking tools to wreak havoc too. No matter who wins though, this is going to be a very tense and very close match.
MatchDay Hype Song
When I imagine this game in my head, I see a cold, hard expanse of grass. I see little clouds of steam rising out of mouths of the players and hanging in the air. I see tension. Bruises. Perhaps a little blood. A battle of attrition. Basically, a scene out of "The Game of Thrones," only without all the dragons and swords.
About the best approximation I can find of that image? The rollicking Game-of-Thrones-loving hipster-metal band The Sword. I think this song sums it up best.