Last time the Houston Dynamo visited Livestrong Sporting Park, Sporting Kansas City fans got a little worked up during last season’s Eastern Conference final.
Fox Soccer television cameras caught a few fans flipping Carlo Costly the bird and hurling obscenities, among other things, after his 87th-minute goal — a dagger off a counterattack that sealed Sporting KC’s fate, lifting the Dynamo to a 2-0 win and a spot in the MLS Cup final.
Now, sitting a point out of first place in the Eastern Conference, Sporting KC hopes to kick off the second half of the season with a better result at 7 p.m. tonight in the first meeting with Houston since the playoffs.
“It’s always in the back of the guys’ minds that we lost the Eastern Conference (final to Houston), but I don’t think that’s the motivation,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “We have a chance to move into first place, which we’d like to take advantage of if we can.”
It’s unlikely the atmosphere and intensity will match the Nov. 6 meeting, but Sporting KC, which stormed to the top of the MLS standings with a seven-game win streak to open the season, hopes to build on the momentum gained with a 3-1 midweek win in Montreal.
Sporting KC is only 3-5-2 since that season-opening kick, but the offense ended a 319-minute scoreless streak and notched three second-half goals against the Impact — the first goals after halftime in the last nine MLS matches.
“Sometimes it can be good to experience a few losses,” midfielder Roger Espinoza said. “It helps you figure out what you need to work on. After the beginning of the season, teams adjusted to our style of play and we have to adjust ourselves, but we can’t relax.”
Besides, Sporting KC, 10-5-2, greatly prefers to be in this position — second place in the Eastern Conference and only one point behind D.C. United, which has played one additional game — as opposed to digging out of a massive early season hole.
“Mentally, you want to work harder,” Espinoza said. “Last year, there were times that you’d doubt yourself because of the situation we were in. Obviously, we know we can still do better. We’ve lost some games we know we could win, but that makes you work harder and prepare better.”
Sporting KC, which rallied to win the Eastern Conference regular-season crown despite a 1-6-3 start during last season’s 10-game road trip while awaiting Livestrong Sporting Park’s debut, has consistently been near the top of the Eastern Conference this season.
That pleases Vermes halfway through the 34-game MLS slate.
“We sit one game behind (D.C. United) and we’re one point behind, so we’re in a decent position,” he said. “We’re still in the same place basically where we started the season, so that consistency has been decent — above average if you will.”
But there is still plenty of room for Sporting KC to grow as it chases a playoff berth and the first MLS Cup final appearance since a 3-2 loss against the Chicago Fire in the 2004 title game.
“We still can be a little better tactically on both sides of the ball,” Vermes said. “That’s our decision-making. There’s no doubt that we can defend and no doubt that we can score goals. It’s just consistency in both those areas that we’ve got to be better at sometimes.”
It will take a solid effort to topple the Dynamo, 6-5-6, who endured a seven-game road trip to kick off the campaign before BBVA Compass Stadium opened May 12.
“It’s a good matchup between our teams every time we play each other, and I expect it to be the same in this game as well,” Vermes said. “All these games are preludes to what the end of the season is going to be like with regard to playoffs.”Sporting KC signs Serbian defender
Sporting Kansas City added depth to its defense Friday when the MLS approved the club’s acquisition of Serbian defender Neven Markovic.
Markovic, 25, who played in Serbia (FK Rad Belgrade), Romania (FC Vaslui), Greece (AO Kerkyra) and Croatia (NK Zagreb) before returning to Greece last year, is a discovery signing from the Doxa Drama in the Greek Superleague. He got a taste of UEFA competition during his time at Vaslui.
“He’s got a great work ethic,” Vermes said. “He’s a hard player in the back and reads the position well. Being that he’s left-footed, he can play left central defense and also left back, which is a great asset to have on your team.”
Markovic has spent the last month as a trialist with Sporting KC.
“I fit in pretty well and I like how we practice,” Markovic said. “I like the guys. The organization is very good. I’ve never seen something like this. The club is on a high level, so I am very excited.”
The stability of MLS lured Markovic across the Atlantic Ocean.
“Finally, after many years, I only need to be focused on football,” Markovic said. “Until now, even if I played big matches for big clubs, I always to think about everything else. Here I just have to focus on playing.”
Worries about payment delays, which are common in many European soccer leagues, that affect his ability to pay rent or provide for his parents won’t dog him any longer.
“It’s what I’ve always wanted, and now I have it here,” Markovic said. “We have everything — people doing massage and treatment, food, TV, a good gym and good showers. For you, it’s strange, but for us coming from Europe, to have these kind of facilities is very strange.”
Markovic could be available as early as tonight’s battle.
“Kind of like (French defender Aurelien) Collin, he’s tailor-made for this league,” Vermes said. “I think you have to have guys back there who are hard. Not dirty, by any means, but hard. Guys that are tough, strong and can win balls based on going into things most guys shy away from. He’s one of those guys.”
Sporting KC also announced Friday that it had waived defender Shawn Singh, who was a 2012 Supplemental Draft pick.Sporting KC could host Open Cup final
If Sporting KC can knock off Philadelphia in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal, which is set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Union’s PPL Park, Livestrong Sporting Park would host the Open Cup final.
With a win, Sporting KC, which won the Open Cup in 2004, would face the winner between Chivas USA and the three-time defending champions, Seattle Sounders FC, on Aug. 7 or 8.
Sporting KC season-ticket members will have right of first refusal for their seat locations as well as access to an exclusive presale beginning at 10 a.m. July 12 in the event of a victory in Philadelphia.