Two teams that missed out on the playoffs last year vie for a spot in MLS Cup Sunday when Sporting Kansas City hosts Houston Dynamo (TV: 5:30 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer) in the Eastern Conference final.
They finished just two points apart in the regular season and between them have conceded one goal in four playoff games. It’s not hard to envision a tightly played game probably dependent on set plays to decide it.
Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City posted a 1-1 tie on the road and a 3-0 win at home in its regular-season meetings with the Houston Dynamo, yet in the two games the Dynamo lost a combined three players to red cards.
Both teams feature a set-play specialist -- Graham Zusi of SKC and Brad Davis of Houston -- who are two of the best of those not named David Beckham.
Both teams finished the season strongly and have few injury issues.
Since losing, 3-0, to SKC Sept. 10, Houston has won six games and tied two. Dynamo midfielder Danny Cruz had to be helped off the field and substituted in a 1-0 defeat of Philadelphia that secured a 3-1 aggregate victory but is expected to start.
SKC catalyst Omar Bravo says he’s recovered from the strained abductor that sidelined him for both legs of the conference semifinals in which his team brushed aside defending champion Colorado, 4-0, on aggregate.
“It’s important to have a healthy squad,” says Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, who will have everyone available except forward Cam Weaver, who is sidelined with a hip injury. “You want to have it during the season but you know it’s never going to happen. But if you can have a healthy squad going into these games it’s very important because it gives you more options on all three lines. Our 18 has been pretty consistent the last month and I think it’s made us a better team to where we can make subs if needed, and I don’t think we’re missing too much.”
In past meetings, Kinnear has adjusted his formation from its normal 4-4-2 to combat SKC’s 4-3-3, but he’s been coy this week about what he plans to do Sunday. And since pairing Luiz Camargo and Adam Moffat in central midfield, that area has stabilized, which enables Davis -- the regular-season leader with 16 assists -- freedom to find pockets of space, and also allows left back Corey Ashe and Cruz to slash forward on the flanks.
The incisiveness of SKC’s formation is as much about personnel as patterns of play. Vermes can choose his three forwards from Bravo, Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury – who each scored nine goals in the regular season – and rookie C.J. Sapong, who hit five during the season and sealed the second 2-0 win over Colorado with a powerful header from a Zusi free kick. The other goal came on another Zusi free kick headed into the net by defender Aureilin Collin, whose centerback pairing with Matt Besler has matured into one of the league’s better tandems.
“I think it does present teams with some unique problems,” says SKC coach Peter Vermes of the 4-3-3. “We can outnumber the other team in some very important parts of the field. And it’s not just the three attackers, all of whom are very mobile and dangerous. Our midfielders have done a great job of supporting the front line but also work hard to cover the spaces in front of our back four, and our outside backs [Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic] can push forward to help out our three in midfield.”
The Dynamo played Thursday, SKC on Wednesday, and that discrepancy could come into play, as Houston had to travel. It has also won just twice on the road this season, and went through 15 games winless before beating FC Dallas and Portland in its last two away matches.
SKC has established Livestrong Sporting Park as a foreboding fortress as well as technological marvel in its inaugural season. At home SKC is 9-2-6, has scored 29 goals, and conceded 16. Since opening the season with a 10-game road trip (1-6-3), SKC has lost just three of 26 games (regular-season and playoffs).