MLS Knockout Round: Houston-Sporting KC could spell changing of the guard

Not since the days of best-of-three playoffs have two teams faced off so often as will Houston and Sporting Kansas City when they meet at BBVA Compass Stadium Thursday (9:30 p.m. UniMas, MLS Live).

The Knockout-Round match comes on the heels of regular season games Oct. 11 and Oct. 15 that were good results for the Dynamo. It captured the home match -- rescheduled due to Hurricane Harvey – by a 2-1 score, and four days later emerged from Children’s Mercy Park with a 0-0 tie.

SKC went on to lose its season finale, 2-1, to Real Salt Lake, and thus enters the playoffs mired in a five-game winless run during which it has scored only three goals. Houston is unbeaten in its last six and tacked on another shutout, 3-0, against Chicago on Sunday.

Since winning MLS Cup in 2013, SKC has been eliminated three straight times in the Knockout Round. Its fans fear another collapse in Houston, where it lost last year (2-0) and also in 2015 (1-0) despite the Dynamo failing to reach the playoffs in both those seasons. Jimmy Medranda’s goal in the Oct. 11 game is the only one scored by SKC in its last three visits to Houston.

SKC, which led the league with 29 goals allowed, will not have keeper Tim Melia. A hamstring injury suffered prior to the games against Houston hasn’t healed and head coach Peter Vermes has announced backup Andrew Dykstra will keep his place to make a fourth straight appearance. This will add to the burden of the back line, especially the veteran centerback pair of Matt Besler and Ike Opara.

While the trade of Dom Dwyer to Orlando leaves it without a go-to goalscorer, SKC does have an array of attacking options. Gerso scored eight goals in league play, Diego Rubio collected six, and Benny Feilhaber netted five. But Feilhaber recorded just three assists, a steep drop from his 13 of last year and 15 of 2015. Graham Zusi led SKC with eight assists and topped all MLS defenders with 59 chances created.

Houston hasn’t played a playoff game since losing to Sporting Kansas City, 2-1, in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. Goalkeeper Tyler Deric, who was a backup that season, is one of the few players still on a team that has been re-crafted extensively since Wilmer Cabrera took over as head coach nearly a year ago.

Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres topped the team with 14 goals but lately hasn’t been as sharp as Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis, who each have 10. The speed of Elis and Romell Quioto (seven goals) is what Houston normally relies on, but more recently some nice possession play of ex-Rapid Vicente Sanchez (five assists) has added another weapon to the piercing balls supplied by assist leader Alex (11).

This game may signal a changing of the guard. Many of SKC’s top players are over 30 and another early elimination could prompt significant changes, with a lot of allocation money having been acquired in the Dwyer deal. Houston boasts a young, energetic squad that responded well to the tutelage of Cabrera in his first season at the helm. But SKC does have a vast edge in playoff experience.

The Dynamo may have to rely on its attack in the absence of veteran defender A.J. DeLaGarza, who suffered a torn ACL in the season finale against his former club, the Galaxy. For the playoff, DeLaGarza, who has had started 30 games, could be replaced by Jalil Anibaba, the starter last year (30 games) who has been mostly a backup this season.

“We will be fine, but of course we’re sad that we lost one of our players,” said Cabrera. “He was outstanding for us and we wish him a quick recovery but we have to move on.”

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications