MLS Semifinal (Western Conference final)
HOUSTON vs. KANSAS CITY
Saturday, 8:30 p.m., ET (Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports en Espanol, HDNet)
Houston's 4-1 comeback victory against FC Dallas in the second leg of their conference semifinals has been hailed as nothing short of miraculous. Absurd, and that's taking nothing away from the Dynamo. If the two-leg format used in the conference semifinals has altered perceptions of soccer in this country in any way, it's the seemingly insurmountable task a team faces by falling behind, especially if it loses the first leg and doesn't score early in the home match.
In this case, Houston lost the first leg away, 1-0, and fell behind, 1-0, at home, before FCD went down to 10 men when Arturo Alvarez received a red card. FCD also played without defender Clarence Goodson, scratched from the lineup due to illness. Houston rallied with two second-half goals to force overtime and nailed two more to win on aggregate, 4-2.
This just in: Good teams that need to score goals often do score them, and the key point here is that Houston is a very good team with a track record, not just last year but also when the team was in San Jose, of comebacks. There's nothing mysterious or magical or miraculous about it. Houston sticks to its system and style of play, come what may, regardless of whether it alters formation or personnel.
Coach Dominic Kinnear changed to a three-man back line after Alvarez's ejection, and Houston just kept running at FCD until cracks widened into gaps.
Belief in the system carried Houston through a rough spell in April and May. After losing an extraordinary CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinal series to Pachuca, 5-4, on aggregate, Houston lurched through the first two months of the season. It lost two and tied one of its first four games, scoring just one goal. It beat Colorado, 3-1, then lost three more in a row. Then it reeled off five straight wins, convincing proof that the system works.
The yin and yang of wide midfielders Brad Davis and Brian Mullan - the master of bending balls on the left, the raiding dribbler on the right, respectively - is supplemented by the large frame of Brian Ching and knifing runs of Joseph Ngwenya up front, and the piercing dribbles and through balls of Dwayne De Rosario from midfield.
No player scored more than seven goals -- a mark attained by Ching, Ngwenya and Nate Jaqua - in the regular season. Houston setting a league record by conceding only 23 goals mitigates that fact but FCD scored in both legs and Kansas City came away from Robertston Stadium with a 1-1 tie when the teams played Sept. 1.
Houston's opponent also has a comeback pedigree. In the 2004 playoffs, Kansas City -- which had lost the previous season to San Jose, 3-2, on aggregate - turned the tables by winning, 3-0, at home after losing the first leg, 2-0, and eventually advanced to MLS Cup. There are more than a dozen returnees from that series sprinkled on the two rosters.
First-year Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo has instituted his own philosophies and changed players, yet he has numerous veterans of that 2004 season: Jimmy Conrad, Nick Garcia, Kerry Zavagnin, Jack Jewsbury, Jose Burciaga Jr. and Davy Arnaud all played in each of Kansas City's four postseason matches.
While a member of the Galaxy, Sasha Victorine played in the 2001 and 2002 MLS Cups. He finished second on the team this season with seven assists. His ex-teammate with the Galaxy, keeper Kevin Hartman, is tops on the active list and second all-time with 40 playoff appearances.
To that experience is added the explosiveness of forwards Eddie Johnson (16 goals in the regular season) and Scott Sealy (seven goals), and the versatility of Arnaud (four goals, nine assists), who can glide through defenders to create chances as well as take them. Johnson must present Houston with a moving target by varying the variety and angles of his runs. He'll also need to keep his head under the rough treatment Dynamo defender Eddie Robinson (70 fouls, 11 cautions) is sure to dish out.
Good teams also defend leads when they need to, and despite more than a few harrowing moments, that's why Kansas City, and not Chivas USA, is in the conference final. By the margin of a single goal in the first leg -- Arnaud's 30-yard free kick that dipped over the wall and skipped past keeper Brad Guzan - the Wizards are one step shy of going back to MLS Cup. Chivas USA hit the frame once in the first leg and twice in the second, during which Kurt Morsink cleared a shot off the goal line, and on several other occasions Hartman came up with tough saves.
The experience of Conrad is an obvious asset, yet as Kansas City has pitched three straight shutouts - in the regular season finale and the two playoff games against Chivas USA - his central partner Garcia has been tough in the tackle and strong in the air. How they deal with the combination play and interchanging of Ching and Ngwenya and DeRosario, the slashing runs of Mullan, and the crossing of Davis will likely determine the outcome.
A roaring crowd of 30,088, mostly swathed in orange, witnessed the rally against Dallas and team officials are hoping to match that number - and intensity - for the conference final.