Coming into the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship, the Houston Dynamo knew that the midfield battle would be one of the most important on the field.
On Saturday night, that battle went to the home team, and it was the main culprit in Houston’s demise.
Down an important cog in Ricardo Clark, Houston made a move to a three-man central midfield to pack the battle with numbers and hopefully gain the advantage. But Sporting Kansas City got the better of the touches in the middle of the park and used that advantage to produce a 2-1 come-from-behind victory.
“It’s always a battle in midfield, especially against KC,” said midfielder Giles Barnes, who moved into central midfield. “They work hard, they turn over the ball, they rattle you and a lot of the time a lot of the stuff is done in the engine room in the middle of the park. It was a very frantic game.”
The battle in midfield was what most expected: hard-nosed and physical. It was the type of battle Houston normally comes out on the winning end of, especially with Clark in the lineup.
But with Clark sidelined with a left knee sprain, Houston struggled to gain a foothold for long stretches of the match.
“I never talk about this, but I don’t know how many times I was fouled in the first half,” said captain Brad Davis. “I felt it was a definitely a battle going on. It was chippy, but we knew it was going to happen. We knew they were going to pressure high, pressure tight and there wasn’t going to be a lot of room to play.”
While the play was physical -- each side was whistled for 14 fouls -- it was SKC’s passing ability that did Houston in. The Dynamo conceded space in the midfield for stretches of time, including on Dom Dwyer’s 63rd-minute game winner where Benny Feilhaber dribbled down the middle of the field to chip a ball into the English forward for the winner.
“It was Feilhaber on the breakaway and I think everyone’s gone to close the space. It’s just a good ball from Benny and a composed finish from Dwyer,” Barnes said. “You can’t knock it. It’s a good goal. Who knows what you could’ve done for it not to happen.
“Margins in football is inches and we knew that was what was going to decide it and it went their way today.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.