[MLS PLAYOFFS: Eastern Conference] The two teams that have reached the MLS Eastern Conference finals partially due to shrewd substitutions in the semis will be stretched to fill out a lineup card with fit players this weekend.
Omar Cummingscame off the bench to score vital goals in both legs of Houston’s 4-3 aggregate triumph over New York, and Claudio Bielershook off a nagging injury to bag the goal by which Sporting Kansas City knocked off New England by the same score.
The reward for those Wednesday night heroics is an early afternoon kickoff Saturday on national television (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, Univision Deportes) in the first match at BBVA Compass Stadium, followed by two weeks of rest prior to the second leg. The winner plays the Western Conference playoff survivor Dec. 7 at the venue of the higher-seeded finalist.
Both teams are banged up from busy schedules: the Dynamo played its sixth game in 17 days, SKC’s was its fifth in 19 days. Both teams also played 30 additional minutes of extra time, so there could be numerous fatigued players laboring on legs of stone for Game 1.
“It’s a lot, but you weigh the alternative,” says Houston defender Bobby Boswell, who has played on losing Dynamo teams in the last two MLS Cup finals. “We always say we rest in the offseason, and we’re not ready for that yet. We’ve got one more game in a short week, and then we’ve got a break. We’ve got to make sure we take care of business so we set ourselves up for a good second leg.”
Holding the higher-seed advantage hasn’t helped SKC in the playoffs the past two seasons. Houston beat SKC at Sporting Park in the 2011 Eastern Conference championship, 2-0, and last year took a two-game conference semifinal series, 2-1, on aggregate after surviving a bombardment in the second leg before and after defender Seth Sinovic scored in the 64th minute.
“Our players were exhausted, dead,” recalls head coach Dominic Kinnear, “and I remember looking up at the clock and thinking, ‘We still have to play 25 minutes?’ But somehow we survived.”
SKC narrowly won the 2013 regular-season series. It broke Houston’s 36-game home unbeaten streak that dated back to the opening of BBVA by winning, 1-0, on May 12, and the other two meetings ended up tied, 1-1 and 0-0.
“They’re a very smart team and they have some very good individual players,” said SKC keeper Jimmy Nielsen during a conference call with reporters Friday. “It is a group that has been together for a while now and they have added some very good players and they always find a way to hit the right playoff form, so it’s a big challenge for us.”
Kinnear sat out with a suspension during the first leg of the conference semifinals in which the Dynamo rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie New York, 2-2, on a Cummings stoppage-time equalizer. He tapped home a rebound for that goal; in the second leg, he reacted quickest to a Cam Weaver knockdown to nudge home the winner in the 14th minute of extra time.
“We brought him here for a reason,” said Kinnear of Cummings, a former Rapid acquired in a trade last December and limited by knee injures to 11 regular-season games. “He’s definitely making me look good.”
Bieler hadn’t scored from the run of play since July 13 while battling a groin strain and poor form, and didn’t even make the travel team for the first leg at New England. But summoned off the bench in the second leg with the aggregate tied, 3-3, he darted into the penalty area to steer home a low cross from another surprise inclusion, Benny Feilhaber, for the winning goal.
“Him going on and finding his right place on the field during a couple of those situations were huge for us,” said Vermes after Bieler’s series winner against New England. “He is what he is: a goal scorer. And it's great to see him get confidence on that goal because we need him down the stretch here."
Graham Zusiplayed an especially spirited game in the second leg, and most of the stars have performed well in the playoffs so far. Yet there have also been heroics from the rank-and-file; Sinovic drilled a searing shot inside the far post to knot the aggregate at 3-3 against New England, and Ricardo Clark’s goal in the first leg against New York triggered Houston’s comeback.
Kinnear must replace suspended left back Corey Ashe; backup Mike Chabala and defensive mid Warren Creavalleare among the alternatives. SKC won’t have midfielder/defender Lawrence Olum, who suffered a fractured fibula in the first leg of the New England series. Midfielder Paulo Nagamura, who played just two games in the past four months because of ankle problems, started the 3-1 second-leg win over New England and played 97 minutes.
Midfielder and captain Brad Davis is one of the league’s more elegant players, yet the Dynamo mantra of persistent pressure and forcing mistakes paid off when he intercepted an errant Red Bull pass to score Houston’s first goal in the second leg. SKC has labored against the Dynamo’s style the past few seasons and despite the quick turnaround for Saturday’s game Houston is set for another 90 minutes of rolled-up sleeves and buckets of sweat.
“This time of the year, you can’t just commit to playing pretty soccer. Do you want to win or do you want to play pretty?” Davis said. “We’d love to play pretty and win all the time, but you also realize that’s not going to happen. You’ve got to be willing to adapt, and guys are willing to get out of their comfort zones and do what you have to do to win games.”