Major League Soccer’s playoff system has its fair share of critics, but the equation still managed to spit out the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo earned this opportunity by just about any measurement.
After finishing the regular season separated by just two points atop the conference table, they are each enjoying what can only be referred to as blinding form, unbeaten in a combined 15 games, with 11 victories since early September. Now, days after breezing through their respective semifinal draws, the two sides will meet on Sunday in the Eastern Conference championship at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, with a trip to MLS Cup and a berth in the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League awarded to the victor.
“For a fan, this is kind of how it is supposed to be,” KC defender Matt Besler said. “It’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds and probably the two hottest teams. We think it’s going to be a great matchup. May the best team win.”
So far this season, Kansas City has won an advantage when the two sides have met head-to-head, winning two matches and rescuing a last-second draw in the other. In fact, Sporting were the last team to defeat the Dynamo, blowing out Dominic Kinnear’s team 3-0 in Kansas City on September 10 with the help of a second-half red card to Carlo Costly and goals from Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong.
Kansas City also knocked off Houston 1-0 in extra time in U.S. Open Cup qualifying in April via another Sapong goal and stole two points from the nine-man Dynamo at Robertson Stadium in June when Aurélien Collin’s shot was deflected past Tally Hall in the final minutes. As important as each of those results were at the time, former Dynamo forward Kei Kamara said precedent goes out the window when the season boils down to 90 minutes.
“That was the regular season,” he said. “You play knowing you have another game coming up. But now, this is it. You win this game, and you get to make it to the big stage, the big cup and all that. You lose this game, and the season is done.”
Kansas City manager Peter Vermes was even more straightforward when asked how past results could relate to this weekend’s match. To be blunt, he said, they have no bearing at all.
“I always say each game is a one-off,” Vermes said.
So far this year, in the regular season at least, the only consistent theme has been that the Dynamo cannot seem to keep 11 men on the field. Colin Clark and Brian Ching were both given straight red cards in Houston on July 16 after lashing out at Collin, and Costly was ejected two months later for a late, reckless tackle on Chance Myers.
“Houston is a pretty competitive team,” Besler said. “They’re physical just like us. For whatever reason, we have gotten under their skin a little bit. I guess we’ll see what happens at home. I wouldn’t mind playing against 10 men again.”
That will be a fate both sides want to avoid at all costs, as Kansas City looks to make the most of the home-field advantage it has built at LSP and Houston tries to play spoiler after improving considerably soon after that September 10 defeat.
“They’re a different team,” Vermes said, “So are we, even from that short period of time. We have to get prepared for this game based on the way their form is at the moment.”
In the case of both teams, that would be red hot.