[MLS PLAYOFFS: Sporting KC-Houston]Playoff matches tend to be tighter and closer than those played in the regular season, yet when Houston and Sporting Kansas City meet, they take that condition to the extreme.
No game in the last five between the two teams has produced more than two goals, and the teams are even at 0-0 heading into the second leg Saturday at Sporting Park (7:30 ET, NBCSN, Univision Deportes). SKC fans won’t take much solace from their team being at home, because that’s where Houston has knocked out SKC the past two seasons.
And yes, SKC rides into this game on a five-game unbeaten streak against Houston but that edge is so thin as to be nearly invisible.
In three regular-season meetings this year, there have been two ties (0-0 and 1-1) and an SKC victory (1-0). SKC won by the same score last year in the second leg of the conference semifinals and lost the series, 2-1, on aggregate. The Dynamo went on to play in its second consecutive MLS Cup, which it lost to the Galaxy, 3-1.
As it did last year, SKC takes the field knowing a series victory would empower it to host the championship game. Yet, again, Sporting Park hasn’t much fazed the battle-hardened Dynamo. Two years ago, in a one-off conference final, it beat SKC, 2-0, with goals by Andre Hainault and Carlos Costly, who are no longer with the team, and scored both goals without Brad Davis, knocked out of the game in the 39th minute by a quadriceps injury.
Davis is healthy and ready this time, but Houston may have to go without midfielder Ricardo Clark, who suffered a leg injury in the first game and whose status for Game 2 is unclear. Davis can pull midfield strings with the best of them, and the Dynamo can also unleash Oscar Boniek Garcia, who left the team for international duty with Honduras but came back sharp after head coach Luis Fernando Suarezused him for just 75 minutes in two friendlies.
“I think Suarez did us a favor by saving him a lot of minutes on Tuesday,” Coach Dominic Kinnear said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. “He’s in good shape and says he feels good.”
Garcia’s normal spot on the right side matches him up against SKC left back Seth Sinovic, who is one of the few defenders in the league who can match his speed. Sinovic will need help if Garcia cuts across him to the inside and how well centerback Matt Besler or a midfielder can deal with that situation greatly affects an SKC defense that conceded 33 goals, second-fewest in MLS, during the regular season.
In a stodgy, pedestrian first leg, most of the players struggled from fatigue imposed by a hectic playoff schedule. Houston was playing its sixth game in 17 days, SKC its fifth. Only five shots, combined, were on target. There were 23 fouls and many heavy collisions. After a run of high-scoring, thrilling playoff matches, Houston and SKC slogged through the first 0-0 postseason snoozer.
Yet SKC midfielder Graham Zusi zipped about the field probing and foraging, Davis and Garcia are usually dangerous, and since both teams have been resting during the international break, the second leg should be much livelier even if these teams labor to score on each other. Still, it won’t be a ballet. The soccer should be better, but the call again will be to battle stations.