Graham Zusi (left) and Sporting Kansas City have fallen to Houston in the playoffs the last two seasons. (Bob Levey/AP)
Outside the Sporting Kansas City locker room, the prevailing narrative heading into Saturday’s Eastern Conference championship decider against the Houston Dynamo centers on rematch and revenge.
Inside, there’s no choice but to look forward. Past failures are just that. Times have changed, and the future Sporting has fought for is only 90 minutes away.
In each of the past two seasons, SKC saw its MLS Cup dream derailed at Sporting Park by a Dynamo squad that thrives in the playoff crucible. In 2011, Houston defeated top-seeded SKC, 2-0, in a one-game conference final. Last year, following a two-goal triumph in the opening leg of the Eastern semis, the Dynamo advanced after holding favored Sporting to a 1-0 victory back in Kansas City.
On Saturday evening (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network), SKC will get a third crack at Houston (16-11-11) when the stakes are highest. The rivals drew, 0-0, in the opener on Nov. 9 and will face off one more time for a berth in the Cup final. Once again, Sporting (18-11-8) is the host and had the better regular season record. Now it must write a new history.
During a Thursday conference call with reporters, Sporting coach Peter Vermes told SI.com that he understands the instinct to bring up the past, but he believes it will have no bearing on the result.
“I’m not trying to play it down, but I think for us, it’s just the next opponent and the next challenge,” he said. “There’s a lot of similarities in the way we’ve played over the last three years, but we both still have different players and different attributes in the way we play, and we’ve really matured in a different away as well. For us, it’s a means to an end … We sit one game away [from hosting MLS Cup] and that’s what we’re really focused on and ready to play for. The rest of it, it’s a good story, and it’s part of the story, but for us it’s about [Saturday]."
Speaking recently to SI.com, Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi stressed the fact that Sporting has evolved since last season.
“In no way are we looking into the past thinking we have some kind of mental block in the playoffs -- choke again, or whatever,” he said. "We’re extremely confident with the team we have. The past two years have only been learning experiences and I think when we’re put in that situation this year we’ll come out on the upper end ... It’s quite a different team, a team I feel very confident in.”
Vermes set out this season to make his squad more unpredictable, efficient and comfortable playing at different tempos. The arrival of playmaker Benny Feilhaber and the emergence of Spanish midfielder Uri Rosell, along with a couple of key departures, helped alter the face of the team. Sporting finished second in MLS in possession percentage during the regular season (55 percent, an improvement over 2011 and 2012), completed more passes and scored five more goals than last year. Six SKC players found the net more than once in 2012. Ten managed it this season.
That increased depth and diversity could make the difference in a game that’s sure to be tight. The Dynamo may be without forward Will Bruin and midfielder Ricardo Clark, both of whom were hurt in the first leg, and have struggled on offense this season. But no team locks down a game like Houston, especially at playoff time.
SKC knows that better than anyone.
“In the last two seasons, they’re the team that knocked us out. I don’t like them for that. I’m jealous of them that they knocked us out and made it to the past two MLS Cups, but at the same time I respect them, too,” defender Matt Besler told MLSSoccer.com’s Extra Time Radio. “I enjoy playing Houston and if we’re going to have to beat somebody to make it to MLS Cup, I’d rather have it be Houston.”
But speaking on the Thursday conference call, he made it clear that none of that will be a factor this weekend. There are bigger prizes on offer.