Sporting Kansas City finally got their revenge over the Houston Dynamo, an Eastern Conference rival who knocked the boys in blue out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
Maybe it was the mojo of KC rap-mogul Tech N9ne, who hyped the already frenzied crowd by laying down rhymes right between the players as they walked out of the tunnel and onto the pitch. Good luck charm, perhaps?
Or maybe it was the winter weather, which was in the teens by game time. It wreaked some havoc with players’ touches all game long, turning normally deft feet into blocks of ice.
Or maybe it was a more experienced and hardened KC team that refused to fold even after conceding a goal just moments after the opening whistle. When Houston’s Boniek Garcia scored just a minute or two in, there was a palpable feeling of, “Oh no, not this AGAIN,” wafting around the freezing stadium.
Sporting was on the back foot immediately, and they had no choice but to chase the game.
“Three years ago, I think we were very new to this when we played them in the same situation,” said KC boss Peter Vermes after the game. ”We were very new, in everything. I even think our fans were new to it. There was a lot of apprehension that year, but I think this year was very different. I think the players understood the task at hand. Even though they scored early, we never panicked.”
Indeed, KC should have knotted it just moments later when Chance Myers found a through ball on the end line and crossed low inside the 6, but Dom Dwyer stumbled over the point blank gimme and Houston was able to clear.
But KC continued to push, and they had the bulk of possession, creating some danger in Houston’s third. Then in the 14th minute, off an unlikely sequence that saw the ball bounce through the middle of several Houston defenders, CJ Sapong slipped in behind and got on the end of the gift, slotting home the easy side-footer.
“It was great because of the type of goal it was,” explained Sapong of his opportunism. ”It was one of those goals where focusing on staying alert and following the play, the ball finally took a bounce in my direction and I was able to put it in.”
In the second half, KC came out the aggressors. They were probing and possessing well and Houston was looking a bit gassed.
About 15 minutes in, a nice run up the middle by Benny Feilhaber drew several defenders, opening up a tiny bit of space for Dwyer. Benny flipped the ball through to Dom, who deked left and finished low and confident putting KC up 2-1 with a heady finish.
“That was one of the classier goals you’ll see,” conceded Houston keeper Tally Hall afterwards. ”His cut and finish made for one of the better goals I’ve seen this year.”
“Benny’s a class player,” said Dwyer, recalling the assist that set up his game winner. ”When he arrived, Peter told me that Benny was capable of doing stuff like that. Obviously, he’s been providing service for everyone all year long, so I knew he was capable of playing that ball. He’s very positive on his through balls, so I took a little risk and tried to anticipate it. He nicked it through the smallest little gap and I finished it off…”
As the clock ticked on, Sporting went into a bit of a defensive shell, and Houston started pumping balls up top for the last 10 or 15 minutes. But they couldn’t break down KC’s defense and never really had a dangerous opportunity to tie the game.
“We are normally not a bunker in team,” said Vermes. ”We’re a team that just goes and tries to play and manage the game not necessarily what the result is, but what’s in front of us. But I think our recognition of the game has become much better in when we should try to counter quickly and when we should try to keep the ball in possession.”
Bunker or not, a win’s a win. And KC deserved it in my opinion, creating many more dangerous chances and looking like the better team for all but a few minutes of the first half.
“We give the crowd credit and we thank them for getting us to the final,” said Matt Besler. “But now we’ve all got one more game together and we’ve got to win that one.”
How cool is it that the MLS Cup Final will be at Sporting Park on December 7th? MLS recently changed their format to award the final to whichever division winner has the highest regular season point total, so KC will host Real Salt Lake for all the marbles.
Needless to say, this is going to be one of the toughest tickets of the year. So get your feelers out. See you there.