One more game for a spot in the MLS Cup final, and there’s nothing aggregate about it.
Sporting KC and the Houston Dynamo kicked off their two-leg Eastern Conference final series Saturday without kicking the ball into the net. The scoreless tie means the second leg starts even.
“Satisfying isn’t the right word,” forward Graham Zusi said. “What we did was put ourselves in a good position.”
The advantage for the better seed — Sporting is second, Houston fourth — is to play the second game at home, and Sporting Park will be the site of the Nov. 23 contest to decide the conference champion.
“The reason the higher seeds gets the second leg at home is for situations like this,” defender Matt Besler said. “Now we get to come home and play in front our fans for the last 90 minutes.”
Houston wasn’t exactly crushed by the outcome. The Dynamo, like Sporting KC, had played extra time on Wednesday night to qualify for this round. Houston lost midfielder Ricardo Clark to injury midway through the first half and although the Dynamo had the better scoring opportunities on Saturday, it appeared neither team had energy near the goal.
“It’s a war every time we play Kansas City,” Houston defender Bobby Boswell said. “We’ve given ourselves a chance in Kansas City.”
And the Dynamo has taken advantage of every postseason chance against its rival. This marks the fourth playoff meeting between the organizations and the Dynamo has won three, including the previous two conference championships.
But 2013 has been a good year for Sporting in the season series. The teams played to a pair of draws and Sporting won at Houston in May.
“I will say this year, it feels right,” Besler said. “We have a group of guys who believe. We have confidence we’re going to win.”
Saturday, it seemed destined neither team would win.
The physical and mental weariness and ragged play was apparent most of the afternoon. There were few quality scoring chances in the game, fewer for Sporting, although it led in shots on goal 15-10.
Sporting survived a dangerous moment early in the second half when Aurelien Collin got enough of Omar Cummings just outside the 18-yard box for a free kick. But Houston couldn’t cash in then or a few minutes later when Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen easily stopped Cam Weaver’s header.
In an especially physical game, Collin may have taken the biggest beating. He wound up on the turf several times, and bumped his noggin a few times.
“I’m OK, I’m good,” Collin said. “My nose, the back of my head, the side of my head, I’m used to it. But I’d say the referee was good. He was quite fair today.”
A solid chance for Sporting came in a 59th minute when a spin move by Benny Feilhaber created an opening from about 25 yards, but his shot skidded wide of the net.
The most dynamic opportunity for either team happened 40 minutes into the half after a Besler throw-in at the Sporting goal quickly turned into transition for Houston.
Will Bruin got enough space for a rip, and launched a laser toward Nielsen from 35 yards. The ball never seemed to rise above the cross bar until the final moment, over Nielsen’s outstretched left glove.
Nielsen, perhaps misreading the force of the shot, smiled, and the 150 or so blue-clad Sporting fans in the corner of BBVA Compass Stadium exhaled.
“I was not 100 percent sure where the ball was going,” Nielsen said. “It kept rising and rising, it was a good shot. I was running backwards to set up at the right time.”
About 10 minutes earlier, Nielsen came up with a terrific save on the best scoring chance of the half with a diving deflection of Oscar Boniek Garcia’s curling free kick that seemed destined to sneak in.
“A pretty good free kick,” Nielsen said. “Lucky for me I had had decent view. I could see when he stepped up. That’s very important for a goalkeeper in that position.”
Houston put the ball in the net early but the offsides flag was up for Kofi Sarkodie’s goal. Houston couldn’t believe it. Sporting KC had given up on the play before the strike.
“It was a close one,” Houston coach Dominic Kinnear said. “It was really, really close.”
But that’s how it went Saturday, a goal was disallowed, defenses played rugged and nobody seemed to have the strength to finish.
“An absolute battle,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “Getting a clean sheet here is not an easy thing to do at this stadium and against this team.
“We kept our composure. And we know what the return match will be, a final.”
With a shot at the biggest prize going to the winner.