Sporting KC

Sporting KC focused on ending Houston hex in playoffs

In the initial 24 hours after their dramatic playoff series-clinching victory Wednesday against New England, Sporting Kansas City players were swarmed with admiration, applause and praise.

Sure, much of it was warranted after they twice erased one-goal aggregate deficits in the final leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals, setting up Claudio Bieler’s game-winning goal in overtime. The game even prompted one national soccer website to publish an article detailing why it was a signal Sporting KC will win its first MLS Cup since 2000.

But not so fast.

After his emotions from that series wore off — and it didn’t take long — Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes felt the need to point something out. A reminder of sorts.

“We really haven’t achieved anything yet,” Vermes said. “We just got into the next round of the playoffs.…

“I didn’t have to relay that to the guys. That’s how they’re looking at it as well.”

Indeed, Sporting KC needs no reminders of how quickly things can change in Major League Soccer. Especially when the Houston Dynamo are involved.

Sporting KC will face Houston at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium in the first leg of a two-game series. The team with the best aggregate score will play the Western Conference champion for the MLS Cup.

“I think we showed (Wednesday) how hungry this team is,” goalie Jimmy Nielsen said. “It’s easy to get disappointed and show a bad attitude when you’re down, but we were hungry for more. And we’re still hungry for more.”

Houston has eliminated Sporting KC from the playoffs each of the past two years — despite Sporting KC serving as the higher seed each time. And once again, Sporting KC is the higher seed, meaning Sporting Park will play host to the series conclusion at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 23 following a weeklong break for international competitions.

The past two postseasons would seemingly provide Sporting KC with some motivation. Then again, maybe not.

“I think we’re a very different team because of the last couple of years,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “I don’t think those games will factor in (to this series) whatsoever.”

Added defender Matt Besler, “It’s a new year with new teams. It’s not a factor. It’s going to be a tough challenge, but not because of the last two years.”

While the playoff results haven’t favored Sporting KC, the club did enjoy some regular season success against the Dynamo in 2013.

On May 12, Sporting KC ended Houston’s 36-game home unbeaten streak with a 1-0 victory. The teams played to a 1-1 draw on May 26 and a scoreless tie on Oct. 9.

“We know what it takes and what kind of effort it takes to win a game there,” Zusi said. “We know what that effort needs to be. I think we can take the highs from (Wednesday) and bring them into Saturday.”

The key, Zusi added, is making those efforts count in the postseason.

Sporting KC did it Wednesday. Another series awaits — this one against a team with plenty of postseason experience.

Houston has reached the MLS Cup in four of the past seven seasons.

“They’re a very seasoned team and a very playoff-ready team,” Vermes said. “I think we’re getting there. I think we got a little bit smarter over the past few years. We have a better intelligence of what it takes to win, and our experience is starting to help us.”