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ASN Playoff Preview

Will Sporting KC Find a Way to Solve Houston?

Ho-hum. Another MLS conference semifinal, another great matchup. Plucky Houston takes on talent-rich Kansas City, and it could go either way. Here is our look at the home-and-home series.
BY Maura Gladys Posted
November 03, 2012
9:15 AM
Editor's Note: ASN will preview every MLS playoff match/series. Check out our interactive Starting XI tool, which lets you set a formation and create lineups for the Houston Dynamo and/or Sporting Kansas City.

INTRO: It’s fitting that in order for Sporting KC to make a run through the 2012 MLS playoffs, it needs to defeat the team that sent them packing last year, the Houston Dynamo. Top-seed Kansas City will take on Houston in a two-legged tie, with Houston hosting the first match at BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday at 3:30 EST, and Sporting hosting the second at Livestrong Sporting Park on Wednesday, November 7th at 9:00 pm EST. Sunday’s match will be broadcast on NBC while Wednesday’s match will be available on MLS Live. Sporting KC enter the tie on a 12-game unbeaten streak, but have had a 10-day layoff, while Houston is lethal in the playoffs, and at home.

HISTORY: Houston and Kansas City’s most memorable matchup came in last year’s Eastern Conference final when Houston traveled to Livestrong Sporting Park and ended the top-seeded home team’s playoff hopes with a 2-0 victory. According to Sporting KC's rising star, Graham Zusi, that loss was his single-greatest soccer disappointment. That match wasn’t a fluke either. Houston has had the upper hand against KC in 2012, earning a 1-0-2 record. The Dynamo snagged a 2-1 home win on July 18, and the two matches in Kansas City both ended in draws.

MATCHUPS: Both teams boast four active players in the ASN 100 (Kansas City’s Teal Bunbury tore his ACL in August). The highest-ranked of the bunch, Zusi, led Major League Soccer in assists with 15, and pulls the strings for Kansas City. His counterpart for Houston is Brad Davis, who gave Chicago fits on Wednesday, drawing fouls left and right to set up Houston’s trademark set pieces. Matt Besler and Bobby Convey control the defense for KC and will have the task of stopping Davis, Will Bruin, Ricardo Clark and Calen Carr.

Even though Sporting KC, the 2012 U.S. Open Cup champions, boast a defense that has been outstanding all season long, their goal-scoring ability has been less than stellar. KC scored just 42 goals this season, and only 22 at home. Against the strong, confident goalkeeping of Tally Hall, goals will be even harder to come by. Trying to get it done up top for KC will be 2011 Rookie of the Year CJ Sapong. Sapong is strong and fast, but Houston’s Bobby Boswell has had his number in previous meetings, shutting down the big man.

TACTICS: Kansas City’s style has been described time and again as relentless, and it lives up to this billing. KC puts extremely high pressure on the midfield, and operates with a “defend first” attitude, swarming its opponents at the moment of possession. They’ve played both a 4-2-3-1 with Sapong as the target striker, and a 4-3-3 with Kamara and either Zusi or Jacob Peterson joining him up top. Roger Ezpinoza and Paulo Nagamura are two of Kansas City’s strongest defensive midfielders, allowing Zusi to push forward and create, but both are questionable due to injury, meaning Zusi may be featured more in the central midfield.

Houston rolls out a 4-3-3 with Davis and Clark finding Carr and Bruin up top. Set pieces are Houston’s bread and butter, and they showed that in their knockout round match against Chicago, scoring off a corner kick and creating several other dangerous chances.

Dominic Kinnear’s side already proved they can neutralize KC’s style, by congesting the middle, isolating Kamara and Sapong up top, and rarely playing the ball in their own end, taking away the jump start that KC gets with its pressure. Who should Kinnear start to shut down KC’s high-pressure attack? Should Zusi play in the middle or out wide? Design your own starting lineup for the match and let us know.

PREDICTION: On paper, Houston has a compelling case for pulling off an upset. KC is coming off a long layover, they’ve struggled to score goals, and Houston just seems to have KC’s number. But Sporting has the revenge factor working in its favor and it possesses a swarming defense that is often too good to be cracked—even by a clever team like Houston. Our prediction: The teams will play to a scoreless draw at BBVA Park in Houston, then KC gets it done at home with goals from Sapong and Kamara. 2-0 Sporting KC.

READER FEEDBACK: What do you think? Will Dominic Kinnear’s men find a way to keep their playoff run alive, or will Sporting KC exorcise their playoff demons and win the franchise’s first MLS Cup since 2000. Let us know in the comments below.

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