HOUSTON -- So much for the theory that the Houston Dynamo might sneak a win with a set piece. The MLS playoff specialists proved they have flair as well as industry by stunning top-seeded Sporting Kansas City at BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday with two fine goals from open play.
Adam Moffat opened the scoring with a wonderful effort in the eighteenth minute, collecting a loose ball and thumping it beyond Jimmy Nielsen from outside the box for his third MLS goal of the season.
The Dynamo's superiority was confirmed 15 minutes before the end as Calen Carr tricked his way past Aurelien Collin, surged down the left wing and centered for the unmarked Will Bruin to crash in a second.
Sporting was ragged after that as it tried to comprehend the inevitability of its first loss since July 28. With a little more composure, Houston might even have enhanced its advantage heading into Wednesday's second leg at Livestrong Sporting Park. The players appeared unaffected by fatigue despite the Dynamo playing in Chicago only four days earlier with the same starting XI. Kansas City last saw action on October 24 and looked to have gone cold.
Sporting finished 10 points clear of the Dynamo in the Eastern Conference after the regular season but the Texans knocked them out of last year's playoffs and their three regular-season meetings this year produced a Houston win and two draws. The Dynamo is one of the few MLS teams that can match Kansas City for work-rate and Moffat and Ricardo Clark controlled central midfield on Sunday.
Moffat is a midfield enforcer with the capacity for the spectacular. The 26-year-old Scot scored from more than 35 yards against the Portland Timbers in August last year.
Playmaker Graham Zusi was rarely able to feed KC's dangerous attackers, CJ Sapong and Kei Kamara. The visitors were oddly self-contained, as if they had come for a draw. Houston's unbeaten run at BBVA Compass Stadium goes on.
Peter Vermes, the Sporting head coach, complained afterwards that the Dynamo's approach was over-aggressive, but it seemed a harsh accusation. Three players were booked, two from the home team. Moffat disagreed with the assessment: "I didn't think so myself, I've played in a lot of physical games. It was tough to play, the pitch wasn't in the best condition," he said. "There was a lot of good aerial duels but I didn't think it was over the top."
Kinnear, delighted but restrained, stressed that the tie is only at halftime. "We didn't celebrate in [the locker room]. There was congratulations on a day's hard work completed but in saying that you know it's a two-legged affair," he said. About the only negative for the Dynamo was the loss of Jermaine Taylor to injury in the second half. Kinnear said the defender's knee problem would be assessed on Monday.
Asked about his goal, Moffat said he remembered more about the consequences than the shot. "It felt great as soon as I hit the ball, just one of those that I connected well with it," he said. "It was kind of tense out there -- it was an icebreaker, a good one. It settled us into the game a little bit and from there we just battled."
Houston knows how to do the playoffs, as one would expect from a franchise that has reached the postseason six times in seven years. Streamers, balloons, banners, colored cards on every seat, a ceremonial firing of the El Capitan cannon, a flypast from a Coast Guard helicopter ... and fans, plenty of noisy fans. The announced crowd was 20,689.
They were boisterous enough for the stadium announcer to threaten miscreants with ejection midway through the first half if they kept chucking their orange streamers on to the field. After Moffat's goal the pitch resembled the Fourth of July at a Tropicana factory.
Houston draws well, with an average in excess of 20,000 fans this term, and this was the first MLS postseason match at its new digs. But the city's beloved Houston Texans were playing at the same time in Reliant Stadium a couple of miles down the road. So it was a superb effort by the Dynamo's marketing crew to shift seats for a fixture that only became a reality last Wednesday night when Dominic Kinnear's team beat the Chicago Fire 2-1 to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
About 0.001 percent of the 10 million or so people who live in the Chicagoland area actually turned up to watch their club lose to the Dynamo last Wednesday, the sight of a half-empty Toyota Park getting the postseason off to a tepid start. It's now warming up nicely.
Last-gasp San Jose Earthquakes goal? Check. Frank Yallop's team once more made the improbable seem predictable, beating the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center on Sunday night with a stoppage-time winner from center back Victor Bernardez -- and from out of nowhere.
Until Bernardez gave the visitors a 1-0 victory, this contest between rivals was more drudge than grudge. Reading the prior negative comments from L.A.'s players about San Jose's direct and muscular style was more entertaining than the game itself.
Neither side took risks in the knowledge that there is another 90 minutes to come at Buck Shaw Stadium on Wednesday. It was an exercise in procrastination, an evening of shadow boxing. Until the very end.
L.A. has only itself to blame: perky in attack, it proved porous at the back. Bernardez's free-kick somehow squirmed through the five-man wall and under the dive of goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who really should have saved it. A couple of minutes earlier, Robbie Keane hit the bar from distance for the Galaxy, who finished the stronger of the two teams and looked threatening when Mike Magee made late runs into the penalty box.
Given its undefeated run at Buck Shaw this season, the Earthquakes will feel confident of success in this Western Conference semifinal's second leg. Deemed too small for a potential MLS Cup Final by the league's commissioner, Don Garber, its tight confines could have a big impact this week.
And yet another late goal -- their ninth second-half stoppage time strike of the season, a league record -- simply adds to San Jose's legend, its image as a team of destiny that somehow finds a way to defy the odds. Late Earthquake strikes seem as inevitable as death and taxes. It must be mentally draining to face such a team, never mind the physical challenges.
Playoffs soccer demands two seemingly contradictory qualities from players: Intense passion and cool heads. Saturday's game at RFK had an abundance of the former and a dearth of the latter. We know about "winning ugly"; this match made a strong case for "drawing ugly" to be added to the sporting lexicon.
It featured two own-goals, a missed penalty by DC United's Chris Pontius and a red card for his teammate, Andy Najar. A foul was called on the defender, who threw the ball at referee Jair Marrufo. The 19-year-old received a yellow card each for the challenge and the petulant reaction. He's suspended for the second leg at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday.
It's hard to disagree with DC head coach Ben Olsen's postgame assessment that the Red Bulls are a "beatable team". For all their experience, it's possible that Hans Backe's men could implode at home if the game isn't flowing their way. Unconfirmed rumors of a halftime argument between designated player Rafael Marquez (who came off at the break with an apparent injury) and Backe only add to the doubts. Between these clubs, the Red Bulls have most of the talent but all of the pressure. But will Thierry Henry really be quiet for two games in a row?
The opening leg at CenturyLink Field last Friday was one of those occasions when a dominant display might prompt a team to lose, not gain, confidence. Despite all its chances, Seattle failed to find the net against Real Salt Lake for the fourth successive time. Since Seattle also has never won a playoff series, it's enough to make Sigi Schmid's team wonder if destiny is plotting against them. Nick Rimando certainly is: The RSL goalkeeper made three top-drawer saves.
That Rimando was repeatedly called into action at least proved Seattle was capable of carving out opportunities without the injured Eddie Johnson (who could return this week). With Seattle 'keeper Michael Gspurning also in fine fettle it would be rash to predict a goalfest in the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.
And the four fixtures between the two have produced a single, lonely strike: Fabian Espindola for RSL in May. But just as pitching duels in baseball can be more interesting than slugfests, Thursday's matchup figures to be tense and tight --iIntrigue is a spectacle, too.