“Welcome to the Blue Hell” reads the sign that awaits visitors at Sporting Park. When the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final begins Saturday, that message may be more fitting for the weather—predicted to be sub-freezing at game time—than the Houston Dynamo.
Since losing their inaugural game at Sporting Kansas City's new stadium 3-0 in September 2011, Houston—who is 1-2-3 at Sporting Park all-time—has rattled off five positive results against Sporting Kansas City. Houston took a 2-0 conference final win in 2011 and a 1-0 loss in last year’s conference semifinal that was enough for them to advance to the Eastern Conference final.
This year Houston is looking to continue that success against a Kansas City team that had a 9-5-3 home record this season. Of the 10 playoff teams, only New England (8-5-4) had a worse mark. If Houston can capitalize at Sporting Park once again it would mean a third MLS Cup Final in a row.
“In the playoffs it almost doesn’t matter, home or away, because it’s a playoff game,” said goalkeeper Tally Hall. “I’m not looking at it as an away game; it’s just a playoff game in Kansas City. They’re all battles.”
Those playoff battles have gone Houston’s way, and the Dynamo know the type of toll that can take on a team.
“I’m sure they have a little bit of a memory because of what’s happened to them in the playoffs because of us,” said center back Bobby Boswell. “Those games could be motivation for them. Our job is to want it more than them.”
Houston’s ability to get results at Sporting Park is uncanny. The stadium is still loud when they are there and the games are some of the toughest the Dynamo face. Still, the Orange seem to come out with on the right side of result whenever they venture to Sporting’s home.
“It’s interesting, I think every team has certain away places where it’s tough. … For whatever reason, playing in Kansas City, we’ve been able to play them pretty up front and go toe-to-toe with them,” said right back Kofi Sarkodie. “Not sure what it is or why, but it's good.”
A point to watch on Saturday will be whether the game follows the 2011 or 2012 script. Last season Houston came into the second leg with a two goal cushion and was able to absorb waves of attack. SKC scored, but it was not enough to overcome the advantage Houston built at home.
In a one-off 2011 game, Houston was patient and, despite losing Brad Davis to a quad injury, kept the game equal until the second half. Andre Hainault scored on a set piece to land a huge body blow in the 53rd minute before Carlo Costly’s late counter-attack goal delivered the knockout punch.
“It has to be more of an even game,” Hall said. “It has to be, for us to advance, a game where the run of play is going both ways. We should get plenty of times where we create opportunities and dangerous chances and we have to take advantage of that.”
Continuing to take that advantage will mean another MLS Cup appearance and another Sporting Park success story.
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.