Benny Feilhaber (right) found Dom Dwyer for the game-winning goal to lift Sporting KC. (Orlin Wagner/AP)
Sporting Kansas City finally ended its Houston hex on Saturday night, and the reward is a home date for the MLS Cup final.
C.J. Sapong and Dom Dwyer scored the goals and SKC overcame an early deficit to defeat the Dynamo, 2-1, in the second and deciding leg of the Eastern Conference finals before an overflow crowd at freezing Sporting Park. Houston had eliminated SKC on home soil in each of the previous two seasons, but the undermanned Dynamo were second-best on Saturday.
Three thoughts on Sporting’s triumph, which resulted in a 2-1 aggregate win following the 0-0 draw two weeks ago in Texas:
SKC exorcised its demons: Speaking to WHB radio before the game, Sporting CEO Robb Heineman said, “It had to be Houston.”
Part of the ownership group that revitalized a once moribund and irrelevant franchise, Heineman knew that to finish the storybook climb – to qualify for an MLS Cup final and bring the title game to K.C. – his team eventually would have to overcome its orange nemesis.
“It’s been building,” he said. “The team’s at the point where not only is this the next logical step, but it’s time for them to go do it. I guess I’m not sure where exactly we go from here if we don’t get it done.”
Saturday’s game was that big for Sporting, but it couldn’t have started in a more ominous manner. The array of uncharacteristic defensive errors that led to Dynamo midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia’s third-minute goal easily could have injected enormous doubt into the hosts. After all, the battle-hardened Dynamo always seem to rise to the postseason occasion. They play mistake-free soccer and don’t surrender leads. Garcia’s goal seemed like the worst-case scenario for an SKC squad already under considerable pressure.
Except it wasn’t. Sporting (19-11-8) responded with confidence and energy and tied the game on Sapong’s strike in the 14th. Several subsequent chances went unfinished, bringing to mind their wasteful performance in last year’s playoff loss. But the hosts continued to play on the front foot like a team intent on rewriting history. Coach Peter Vermes maintained his faith in his young forwards and the mobile playmaking of Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber, and it paid off.
“I think our group of guys is ready to do it this year,” defender Matt Besler said this week. He was right.
A key Houston absence played to SKC’s strengths: The Dynamo (16-12-11) are renowned for their ability to fluster and frustrate an opponent. But without midfield anchor Ricardo Clark, Houston wasn’t entirely itself on Saturday. The World Cup vet suffered a leg injury in the series opener and wasn’t able to recover during the two-week layoff, leaving a gaping hole in the Dynamo’s spine that coach Dom Kinnear couldn’t fill.
Zusi and Feilhaber exploited it. The pair had room to run and if not for an approach that often bordered on the frenetic and impatient, the margin of victory likely would have been larger. Feilhaber helped set up the first goal when he picked up a loose ball and made a dribbling run that forced an errant clearance from Houston’s Bobby Boswell. It fell to Sapong, who scored his second career playoff goal.
SKC continued to find ample space through Houston’s gut. Perhaps too much -- sometimes they looked like they were running awkwardly downhill. But the game-winning goal was a thing of beauty. Zusi dragged the Houston defense to his left, knocked the ball back to the right and gave Feilhaber a lane through the middle. The 2010 World Cup super-sub found a sliver of space between four opponents and chipped a perfect pass to Dwyer. The Englishman then slipped the ball past one final Dynamo defender before finishing with his left foot.
Key to both goals, Feilhaber more than justified Vermes’ faith in him on Saturday. Questions surrounded the player after he was jettisoned by the New England Revolution last winter, but Vermes was convinced Feilhaber would fit in and that he offered something unique.
“He has solutions in the final third,” Vermes said in the spring. “He can give the final pass.”
In past playoffs, SKC didn’t have the player who could deliver that pass. On Saturday it did, and he and Zusi had the time and space they needed.
Kansas City will stake its claim: During this build-up to this summer’s MLS All-Star Game at Sporting Park, there were t-shirts and signs trumpeting Kansas City as the “Soccer Capital of America." Naturally, partisans in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Washington and several other cities had a bit of a problem with that.
But K.C. isn’t backing off. Its high-tech stadium, regarded by many as a model for clubs at home and abroad, soon will add an MLS Cup final to the All-Star Game, U.S. Open Cup final, World Cup qualifiers and CONCACAF Champions League matches it's hosted in the past year-and-a-half. Sporting also is working with the U.S. Soccer Federation to bring a new national training and coaching center to the area.
On Dec. 7, those with an interest in the American game will turn toward K.C. once again, this time for MLS Cup. In his post-game press conference, Kinnear called it "a good thing for MLS." That's because four years ago, the region was a soccer backwater that many felt didn’t deserve a club. Sporting, then the Wizards, played in a minor league baseball stadium and failed to register with the public or in the standings. Now, the team and the city are players at the highest level. Saturday’s win is yet another step in a stunning rise.