There are certain expectations whenever the Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City face off. You can bank on a tight, tense, fiercely-fought contest between evenly-matched and physical teams who have plenty in common, even though they are sworn rivals.
After a goalless draw at BBVA Compass Stadium nearly two weeks ago, the sides clash again at Sporting Park on Saturday in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship (6:30 p.m. CT; NBC Sports Network). A place in MLS Cup awaits the winner. Yet despite the magnitude of the occasion, few expect the pattern of play to be much different from previous encounters.
“We talked about it before we played them here at home, what it was going to be like, and it was exactly that. So I don’t see why it’ll change on Saturday,” said Houston captain Brad Davis.
“The coaches have the same mentality that they instill in their players: it’s a group that fight and scrap for every ball and don’t take days off, that’s the way we are, that’s the way they are, so we tend to clash. They tend to be very physical games, that’s fine with us.”
The teams have met nine times since the start of last season and last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal first leg—a 2-0 Dynamo victory—was the only occasion either side won with a margin of more than one goal. The four games between the clubs this season have produced two scoreless draws and only three goals—one for the Dynamo and two for SKC.
So past results are a strong indication that Saturday’s match will be very close, but Houston feel fortified by their playoff successes against Peter Vermes’ men in 2011 and 2012.
“We know it’s going to be a very difficult game but we’ve done it a couple of times before, the last couple of years, so we know it can be done with a lot of hard work,” said Davis.
Unsurprisingly, the midfielder does not think the Dynamo need to do anything radically different in their tactical approach to Saturday’s match. Why meddle with a winning formula?
“We’re successful because we’ve stayed consistent, we don’t try and go out of the box and try things we’re not good at. The things we’re good at we do very well, I think that’s been part of our success here. People know what we’re going to do and we still continue to do it but we do it very well. An ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ type of deal,” he said. “No matter what I think it’s going to be a tight game.”
What has changed in comparison with past meetings is that both teams have had an unusually long time to wait between fixtures, as the FIFA international break prompted a two-week gap between the first and second legs. That is a strange feeling for a Dynamo team that had grown used to playing every couple of days down the stretch, but goalkeeper Tally Hall doubts the wait will alter the dynamic between the teams.
“It was a welcome two weeks of rest … it’s not the worst thing,” he said. “It’s the end of the season, we’re not learning how to play soccer any more, we’re just continuing with the trends and the successful habits that we’ve had in the last month or so, and on Saturday when it comes down to it the two weeks shouldn’t affect us.”
On a night when a solitary goal might settle things, what could make the difference between winning and losing? For Hall, maintaining tactical discipline is essential. “It’s whatever team can stay organized the longest, I think. It will be a close affair for the entire period of the game. And so if we can stay organized as a team, if we can stay organized working defensively as one unit, we’ll have the upper hand,” he said.
“We’re playing against a team that prides itself on the same thing, organizing and working together. So it’s going to be maybe a game of ‘chicken’ in that sense. But they have attacking players who can change the game in one play and I think we have attacking players who can change the game in one play.”
Even though SKC will be roared on by a capacity crowd at one of MLS’ most boisterous venues, Davis hopes that a solid start from the visitors will unsettle the home side and quiet the crowd. “We’re going to go there and try and pressure them, get them uncomfortable and hopefully we can keep a clean sheet for the entire match,” he said.
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.