FOX Soccer Exclusive
Houston have enough to stop Kansas City
Kei Kamara must help Kansas City nullify the threat of Houston’s Brad Davis. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Two teams who watched the 2010 MLS playoffs on television stand one step away from a place in the 2011 MLS Cup Final as Sporting Kansas City takes on the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference Final. (Live on Fox Soccer, 5:30 p.m. ET)
Unlike the West Final, which features perennial powers Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake, Sunday’s Eastern Conference title game is a showcase of two teams that overcame disappointing 2010 seasons, as well as slow starts to the 2011 season, to find their best form in the second half of the season, all the way to the doorstep of a championship.
Sporting Kansas City enters as the heavy favorite, both because of the team’s form in the second half of the season, and because of the heavy home-field advantage expected from a sold-out LiveStrong Sporting Park. Sporting’s improved defense and 4-3-3 system has been difficult for anybody to stop, but the Dynamo just might have the elements to slow down KC.
As much as the East Final will be about two strong and streaking teams, and two coaches who have done a stellar job improving their teams, the match will also be about players having the chance to build on strong seasons and taking major steps toward stardom.
In Sporting’s corner, you have players such as Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. All players who have been pros three years or less, but who have all blossomed during KC’s dream season. They were all keys to Sporting’s turnaround after a 1-6-4 start to the season. They all, with the exception of Bunbury, came into the 2011 season off the radar.
Now? All four players are grabbing headlines and accolades. Bunbury is back in the national team picture, Sapong is ready to take home the MLS Rookie of the Year award, Zusi has become one of the best attacking midfielders in the league and Besler has emerged as one of the better young centerbacks in MLS.
Houston doesn’t have as many young standouts as Sporting KC does, but it does have players who could catapult their growing reputations with big games on Sunday. Goalkeeper Tally Hall replaced standout Pat Onstad and has enjoyed a strong first season as a starter. He was key in Houston’s series win against Philadelphia and chances are he will face his share of shots from Sporting KC’s three-forward attack.
Then you have Geoff Cameron, the ultra-versatile all-star who is a natural midfielder but has proven to be an elite level centerback when needed there. He hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves for being one of the most talented players in MLS, but if he can help shut down Sporting KC’s dangerous attack, you will certainly start hearing his name more in “who should get a national team call-up” conversations.
You already should considering how important Cameron was to Houston’s late-season turnaround. Dom Kinnear’s Dynamo team didn’t look much like a playoff team as recently as two months ago, when a 3-0 loss to Sporting KC at Livestrong Sporting Park put a dent in their quest for a playoff spot and left them winless on the road. More importantly, it led Kinnear to move Cameron from midfield to central defense to help solidify the back-line.
That move, and the eventual placement of Andre Hainault and Corey Ashe as fullbacks helped Houston finish 4-0-2 in its final six matches, and that same back four effectively neutralized the Philadelphia Union, allowing just one goal in their two East semifinal series games.
The revamped defense has been vital to Houston’s late-season surge, and should give the Dynamo a good chance against a Sporting offense known to cause match-up problems. KC’s 4-3-3 can create mis-matches and defensive imbalances, but the expected presence of Hainault alongside Boswell and Cameron give Houston three quality defenders capable of deal with Sporting’s three-forward attack.
One area where both teams will try to take advantage is set pieces. Led by Houston’s Brad Davis and Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi, both East finalists are among the best in the league at producing goals and scoring chances on set pieces, and how each handles defensive duties will play a large part in determining the winner.
Both squads have players capable of finishing off the quality service their playmakers can deliver on set plays. Houston boasts Brian Ching and Bobby Boswell among others, while Sporting KC features C.J. Sapong, Kei Kamara and Aurelien Collin among their best set-piece threats.
Players celebrate after the final whistle as Sporting Kansas City defeats the Colorado Rapids 2-0 to win the Eastern Conference semifinal. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
For Sporting KC, as much as their forwards get plenty of attention, it will be the work of their central midfield trio that will determine if they can dictate the tempo of the match. The defensive midfield pairing of Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar do a good job of smothering opposing playmakers, while Graham Zusi has blossomed into one of the best young midfielders in the league and will keep Dynamo midfielder Adam Moffatt busy all match long.
KC’s three-man triangle can do a good job of clogging the middle, but they are facing a Dynamo team that thrives on providing service from the wings, particularly from MVP candidate Brad Davis, who punishing opponents on set pieces as well as in the run of play if given the space.
Sporting will turn to fullback Chance Myers, the former No. 1 overall draft pick who has turned 2011 into a revival of a career that seemed destined to cast him as a draft-day bust. Myers has the athleticism to pester Davis, but also the attacking qualities to force Davis to do some defending.
While Myers will try to neutralize Davis in the run of play, it will be up to the entire KC defense to cover Dynamo attackers smartly and avoid the kind of silly fouls that give Houston dangerous set piece opportunities (and the kind of fouls that ultimately doomed Philadelphia in the previous playoff round).
If Sporting KC can contain Davis, and avoid giving up needless free kicks, they will have a considerable edge against a Houston side that has improved defensively, but still relies too much on Davis to win games. Stopping Davis is easier said than done, however, as he is a strong MVP candidate for a reason
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.