It’s been a while, but as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. And things do not come much better in MLS than the second leg of a conference final when the scores are level, the teams evenly-matched and the stadium sure to be full and noisy.
After the Dynamo added another chapter to their playoff success story with a gutsy and opportunistic 4-3 aggregate extra time win over the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern semifinals, they should be full of self-belief for Saturday night’s clash with Sporting Kansas City at Sporting Park (6:30 p.m. CT; NBC Sports Network, Univision Deportes). It's the kind of occasion this franchise lives for.
The only uncertainty for Houston is physical, not mental. The Dynamo are waiting on the health of two mainstays who were injured in the first leg, striker Will Bruin and midfielder Ricardo Clark. Both are questionable for Saturday’s game according to the official injury report.
But if last season’s club top scorer cannot suit up, this year’s golden boot winner is ready to test Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen.
“I’m not really shy to shoot, if I can see the frame and I think it’s a good opportunity and no one else is there to be slid in, I’m going to take a shot,” said Giles Barnes, who played with SKC midfielder Benny Feilhaber at Derby County in 2007-08.
The Englishman has nine goals this season, some of them spectacular, though he is yet to find the net in the playoffs. “Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn’t. Hopefully this game will be a time when it comes off,” he said.
Matches between these teams are always physical. Although no cards were issued in the first leg, the sides combined for 23 infractions. Missing MLS Cup because of a sending-off would be a dire punishment, but Barnes does not expect either set of players will modify their full-blooded approach.
“There’s tackles to be made, there’s tackles to be won so I don’t think anyone will be backing out of any challenges or thinking that in the back of their mind,” he said. Nor is the 25-year-old worried about entering what SKC fans like to call “Blue Hell”. For Barnes, a deafening atmosphere at any road venue is helpful rather than hellish.
“It’s always good when any fans are screaming, it gives you that extra buzz as well and we always enjoy going there and taking that little buzz away from them,” he said.
Head coach Dominic Kinnear described the elongated two-week break between fixtures as “a bit boring” in comparison with the intense cavalcade of matches the Dynamo have grown used to lately. It’s hard to predict how the long layoff will affect the teams, and whether they might take a few minutes to rediscover a sense of rhythm and momentum, but Kinnear thinks his players are fully capable of making a fast start.
“We’ll find out when the game’s started. I think the energy from the locker room will be a good one. You know Kansas City’s going to be ready for it, their fans are going to be into the game, so it does raise the intensity level and the atmosphere. I think our guys will be ready to play, I really do,” he said.
“You have two very competitive teams that over the course of these two, three years have been two of the better teams in MLS, defensively very strong, so I think … it definitely does raise the intensity and the competitive feeling in the two groups.”
The winner will advance to MLS Cup on December 7 to face either the Portland Timbers or Real Salt Lake. The Utah club leads Portland 4-2 going into Sunday’s second leg. As the remaining team with the best regular-season record, SKC know that if they can oust the Dynamo, they will host the Cup final.
As Kinnear pointed out, given the scoreless first leg and the gap between fixtures, it’s almost easy to forget that this is a tie played over 180 minutes, not 90. Saturday’s match hardly feels like a continuation of the meeting at BBVA Compass Stadium.
“Obviously we’d have loved to have won the first game here at BBVA, it didn’t happen but I think the guys understand it’s [always] going to come down to the second game,” he said.
“I think they’re confident. We’ve had a tough road to get here. When you win games, you get positive results, you get a good feeling from that.”
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.