Houston Dynamo expect tough battle on Sunday against conference foe Sporting KC
MLS' official Rivalry Week was back in March but this week feels like a sequel for the Dynamo. Three games in eight days, all against foes from last season's playoffs. Two games down, two wins secured, the climax comes on Sunday when Sporting Kansas City visit BBVA Compass Stadium (Click here to secure your seats).
While FC Dallas are Houston's natural geographical enemies, the Dynamo and SKC are building up a genuine rivalry based purely on what's happened on the field: the number of tight and crucial games between two clubs that are regularly among the best in MLS.
No one could blame Kansas City if they arrive in Texas feeling like they have a score to settle. Two scores, even. Peter Vermes' men topped the Eastern Conference in each of the past two seasons, but the Dynamo then eliminated them from the postseason both times. Last November's semifinals brought a 2-1 aggregate Houston victory after a 2-0 win at home and a tense 1-0 loss at Sporting Park.
It's still early in the 2013 campaign but there is plenty at stake when the teams clash this weekend. Dominic Kinnear's team have their record-breaking home undefeated streak to protect, while a Sporting win would draw them level in the standings with Houston on 20 points.
"Every moment on the field is very intense and very competitive. They have good players, they've got a good team, they fully test you. On the other side of it, we do the same. We've had some real good games over the last few years," Kinnear told HoustonDynamo.com.
Asked for his recollection of last year's playoff meetings, the head coach added: "You don't want to look back too far because their team's changed a little bit, so has ours. They were two tough games... You always expect a tough game from them. One thing stood out, that it was 180 minutes of hard work and concentration that we needed then, and we're going to need it [throughout the game] on Sunday."
Former Dynamo striker Kei Kamara has returned from his loan spell at English Premier League side Norwich City to boost Kansas City's attack. Behind, playmaker Graham Zusi pulls the strings like an expert puppet-master. The battle for midfield supremacy between Zusi and his fellow United States international, Dynamo captain Brad Davis, promises to be one of the keys to the match. Both are vital creative hubs for their teams.
"He's been really good. In the last year-and-a-half he's gotten better, he's confident, a top player, for me one of the top players in the league," Kinnear said of Zusi. "During the run of play, dead balls, he does a lot for them in the sense of attacking work. He's really emerged in the last year-and-a-half to be a real good player in MLS."
HIGHLIGHTS: Dynamo 4, DC United 0
A Dynamo victory would put the seal on a hugely successful week for the club following away triumphs over the LA Galaxy and D.C. United. "That would be ideal if we could get three out of three - easier said than done," said Kinnear. "Even though we've come off two good road wins, the guys are still very serious, no one's thinking the week's over, they understand there's a tough 90 minutes for us on Sunday."
Friday's wet weather meant the Dynamo trained indoors. Kinnear hopes conditions improve tomorrow so he can hold an outdoor session that will make it easier to judge the fitness and fatigue levels of his players. Forward Giles Barnes came off injured against D.C. and Cam Weaver, Warren Creavalle and Ricardo Clark also missed the 4-0 win. For now, the head coach is adopting a wait-and-see approach, knowing that the impressive performances of so-called fringe players this year have given him plenty of options.
"When you're winning games you obviously feel better, but with three games in a week, we picked up a couple of injuries... there could be some changes from Wednesday's game. Some of those could be out of necessity and some of those could be at the discretion of the manager," said Kinnear.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.