Sporting Kansas City-Dynamo Preview
Sporting Kansas City's reward for finishing atop the Eastern Conference is a matchup against a team it failed to beat this year that also knocked the club out of last year's playoffs.
The Houston Dynamo have been a difficult opponent for Kansas City, and own a 26-game home league unbeaten streak entering Sunday's opening leg of this semifinal series in the first playoff game at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Sporting Kansas City finished with the league's second-highest point total with 63. Fifth-seeded Houston had 53 and was forced to go on the road for Wednesday's knockout round, but won 2-1 at Chicago.
"It is a clean slate and more importantly, it is a clean slate for everyone, right?" Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. "Whether you got in as the first seed or the fifth seed, you're in the playoffs, right?"
While the Dynamo won't be the rested team, they may have a mental edge after posting two draws and a victory in the season series along with their 2-0 victory at Kansas City in last year's single-elimination Eastern Conference final.
Sporting Kansas City insists that revenge is not its motivation, and that it gained many lessons from the disappointment of 2011.
"The thing I think last year really provided us is it gave us an opportunity to learn and become a lot better and I really think we've grown from last year," Vermes said. "And I definitely think it's helped us tremendously this year."
Houston went 11-0-6 this year at its new stadium, outscoring foes 31-12. The Dynamo's overall run at home dates to July 9, 2011, including last year's playoff matches en route to the East title.
Kansas City is 0-4-3 in its last seven at Houston.
"Obviously Houston is a tough place to play but we'll be looking to get a win out of it," Kansas City defender Seth Sinovic said.
This series features two of the league's top playmakers in Graham Zusi for Kansas City and captain Brad Davis for Houston. Zusi led MLS with 15 assists while Davis had 12
Defender Corey Ashe is part of a Dynamo back line that will be tasked with slowing down Zusi and Kei Kamara, who scored a team-high 11 goals.
"I love playing against Kei, love playing against Graham," Ashe told the Dynamo's official website. "I'm looking forward to it. It's definitely going to be competitive, and that fire's going to be coming out."
Will Bruin scored twice Wednesday to boost his season total to 14, with Davis assisting on the first tally. Davis has a goal and an assist against Kansas City this year.
"You gotta be aggressive, trying to limit crosses as much as we can because we know they're physical and big in the air," Sinovic said. "Obviously you don't want Brad Davis to get his opportunities to serve the ball in the box.
This matchup also features top goalkeepers. Kansas City's Jimmy Nielsen led the league with 15 clean sheets and Houston's Tally Hall tied for second with 12.
Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza is expected to be available after missing the last two matches with an ankle sprain.
The second leg will be Wednesday at Kansas City.