Neither Sporting Kansas City nor Houston Dynamo could find a breakthrough in the Eastern Conference finals' first leg. (Bob Levey/AP)
Three thoughts on Saturday’s rugged 0-0 draw between the Houston Dynamo and visiting Sporting Kansas City in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference finals.
Ugly was inevitable -- Considering the fatigue both squads were facing (especially Houston) -- not to mention the recent history between the clubs and what looked like a choppy field at BBVA Compass Stadium – Saturday’s opener never was going to be a thing of beauty. It certainly wasn’t worthy of the platform afforded by NBC’s national network broadcast.
The Dynamo (16-11-11) were playing their fourth postseason game in just 10 days (the same portion of the playoff schedule took 12 days in 2012) and, like SKC (18-11-8), they played 120 minutes in the quarterfinal deciders on Wednesday night.
Houston coach Dom Kinnear admitted his players were worn out after eliminating the New York Red Bulls. “But credit to guys for sticking with it and taking advantage of our opportunities when they came up,” he told reporters.
Simple survival was the goal on Saturday, and the Dynamo managed it despite significant adversity. Both teams are saddled with inconsistent attacks and pushing forward with tired legs, thereby risking a first-leg deficit, wasn’t going to appeal to either coach. The fact that neither team shies away from the game’s more combative aspects simply added to the quagmire. Houston and KC managed just three goals combined in their three regular season meetings this year. It’s no surprise that Saturday’s slugfest ended scoreless.
Sporting got the breaks -- KC was going to need a bit of good fortune to end its Houston hex, and it got plenty on Saturday. Dynamo left back Corey Ashe, an All-Star who’s a key element in the attack, was suspended. Midfield engine Ricardo Clark then left the game in the 26th minute with a sprained left MCL, forcing Kinnear to juggle the alignment of his front six.
Houston could have been in the lead by then. Defender Kofi Sarkodie executed a nice give-and-go with Omar Cummings in the 17th minute and beat KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen with a low shot from the right. The whistle blew for offside. It was close. If Sarkodie indeed was off, it was by inches as defender Matt Besler shuffled his left leg forward. (Even if the call was correct, FIFA should consider promoting attacking soccer and easing the burden on officials by requiring the linesman to see daylight between a defender and the attacker before raising the flag).
Here's a GIF of the play, via SB Nation:
In the 72nd, Sporting got the referee's benefit of the doubt again as defender Aurélien Collin stepped on Cam Weaver’s foot inside the SKC penalty area. The substitute forward went down but the play went unpunished.
Sporting had one golden scoring chance, a 15th minute look from Jacob Peterson that was scuffed, but Houston arguably had the better of the play overall. SKC never found a rhythm and the fact that the tired Dynamo seemed to summon some momentum over the final 20 minutes emphasizes how fortunate the visitors are to be heading back to Kansas City at 0-0.
Now, we wait -- Thanks to the upcoming FIFA international date, both teams now will get plenty of rest (except for the likes of Graham Zusi and Brad Davis if they’re called up by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann). The conference finals' second leg at Sporting Park won’t be played until Nov. 23. Momentum won’t matter and KC will like its chances. Coach Peter Vermes’ side appears healthier and will enjoy the atmosphere at its sold-out stadium. SKC also knows that a victory will ensure that it hosts the MLS Cup final.
But Houston knows it can win under those conditions. It beat Kansas City, 2-0, at the same stage two years ago after losing Davis to an early injury.
“We’re a good group with our back against the wall,” veteran Dynamo defender Bobby Boswell said this week. “It’s unfortunate some of the situations we put ourselves in, but at the same time, that’s when we seem to thrive the most.”
Saturday’s game merely set the stage. Thankfully, it’s the Nov. 23 decider that will be remembered.