Avoiding the temptation to overreact to the physical play of the Philadelphia Union was an important part of the Houston Dynamo advancing through the Eastern Conference semifinals. After passing that test, Houston faces another physical challenger in Sporting Kansas City in Sunday's Eastern Conference final. Like the Dynamo, Sporting is known for blending a physical brand of soccer with a potent offensive attack – and it’s a trait that’s caused some opponents to label them as “dirty.”
“I don’t think [Sporting] deserve a reputation as a dirty team, because every team has players at positions on the field that need to be physical,” Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear said on a media conference call on Friday after a Kansas City reporter cited Colorado head coach Gary Smith's post-game comments. “You can’t have people playing soft out there, especially at this time of year, and you need players to make sure every challenge is challenged.”
Finding that blend down the stretch has helped put both teams one game away from the MLS Cup final. While the Dynamo know the need for physical play, their 2011 track record against Sporting shows its dangers. Houston’s regular-season games against Sporting were marred by red cards to Colin Clark, Brian Ching, and Carlo Costly.
Ching’s red card is indicative of the dangers of succumbing to agitation brought about by physicality. Ching battled Aurélien Collin all night in Houston’s 1-1 draw on July 16, going head-over-heels one time on a 50-50 challenge at midfield. The big Frenchman worked his way under Ching’s skin enough to provoke the usually calm Dynamo captain into a rash kick from behind that ended Ching’s night.
Ching was Collin’s second victim that night – the defender was on the end of a red card challenge from Clark earlier in the evening. Avoiding those kinds of plays while still maintaining their physical edge is high on the list of the Dynamo’s priorities.
“We’re not going to hold back on the physical side of things,” said midfielder Adam Moffat, who got into a shoving match with Philly’s Sheanon Williams in the first leg of the semifinals after the latter’s ugly, two-footed tackle. “Maybe they’ve got some guys that are known around the league as being a little cheap, but we can’t give in to that.”
That was the formula Houston used to combat Philadelphia’s physical play. The Dynamo were able to match Philadelphia’s physicality without giving the Union an advantage by avoiding red card-worthy retaliation. It’s a bit of wisdom Kinnear hopes his side have taken to heart.
“Everybody plays the game hard, and it depends on how you react to certain situations,” Kinnear told MLSsoccer.com after Friday’s training. “We’ve reacted poorly in the past, but I think we’ve learned our lesson.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.