MLS CUP: Head-to-Head Breakdown: Kansas City vs. Houston

Rating the hugely anticipated Eastern Conference championship

Jimmy Nielsen’s experience has proved invaluable so far for the Sporting Kansas City defense. He is yet to concede in the playoffs after consecutive 2-0 wins over Colorado in the Conference Semifinals. In 33 starts, he has let in just 35 goals as SKC have been solid at the back and clinical up top. The “White Puma” was largely untested against the Rapids, however, he stayed alert to deal with any threat they put forward in the rain-soaked second leg.

 

GOALKEEPERS

 

Tally Hall has come of age in the playoffs, having only been beaten by a Sébastien Le Toux snapshot after seven minutes of the first leg. His display in the closing stages of the clash at PPL Park arguably kept Houston in the series, as he pulled off a string of fine saves to keep the Union at bay. In the second leg, Hall was again forced into making saves late on, and he commanded his area well and looked mature beyond his years. Hall will undoubtedly be tested to his limits by the plethora of attacking forces SKC possess.

SKC have been dominant defensively thus far in the playoffs, yet they weren’t really tested against a under-strength Colorado side. Aurélien Collin proved his worth in both boxes, as his brave header in the second leg put KC 3-0 up on aggregate. He had another effort crash off the post as he popped up in dangerous positions and also look assured alongside Matt Besler in the heart of KC’s defense. Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic at fullback provide KC with attacking presence. However, with the experienced of Houston's Brian Ching and the workhorse that is Calen Carr buzzing around, KC’s defense will have their work cut out to record another goose egg.

 

DEFENSE

With Geoff Cameron, Bobby Boswell, Corey Ashe and Andre Hainault, the Dynamo have a solid and dependable back four who looked stretched at times against the Union, but who managed to stay compact and strong when it mattered most. Their biggest test will come up against the attacking powerhouse that is Sporting. With a mixture of pace, power and precision to deal with, the Dynamo’s defense will have to stand strong to not concede. They should be able to deal with the aerial threat, but the pace of Bunbury and Sapong could cause them problems.

SKC’s midfield proved efficient, effective and downright destructive against Colorado as Brazilian Júlio César did a superb job of anchoring the line. This allowed the attacking Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza to bomb forward and create havoc in the Rapids backline. A similar formula will no doubt be deployed against Houston, as Adam Moffat and Luiz Camargo will have to stop an influx of angled passes and deadly dribbles. At times, however, Kansas City do leave themselves exposed in their passion to go forward, so Júlio César’s form and captain Davy Arnaud's experience will be pivotal if SKC are to unleash their attack-minded midfield maestros.

 

MIDFIELD

Brad Davis is the first name that jumps into people's minds when you mention the Dynamo midfield, and rightly so. The dead-ball specialist was key in helping Houston advance past Philly; his pinpoint free kicks are whipped in with frightening pace and are sure to give SKC’s defense nightmares on Sunday. Adam Moffat has been superb since joining from Portland and has scored two absolute beauties from long range. Danny Cruz works up and down the right flank tirelessly and his battle with Sinovic will be a very interesting one.

KC certainly won’t be short of options when it comes to forcing the issue against the Dynamo. Teal Bunbury scored twice to put Sporting in the driver's seat in the series against Colorado, while red-hot Rookie of the Year candidate C.J. Sapong scored in the second leg to show just how effective the young guns are. Add Kei Kamara and a healty Omar Bravo to the mix, as well as Zusi’s ability to provide inviting deliveries from set pieces, and KC possess ways to hurt Houston from any angle.

 

FORWARDS

Just when it seemed as if Houston’s Achilles heel had been found in the forward department, up popped Ching and Carr with timely reminders that the Dynamo have two fox-in-the-box predators. Both played extremely well in the series win over Philly, with Ching threading an inch-perfect pass through to Carr for the winner in the first leg, before he grabbed the winner at Robertson Stadium in the second leg. Of course, Carlo Costly is always a good option to have to try and force the issue late on.

 

Peter Vermes has forged a tremendous team after a calculated gamble to blood so many promising youngsters at once. Yet their extremely successful defense was Sporting's key to finishing atop the Eastern Conference. On the other end of the pitch, the 4-3-3 has worked wonders for the team, whose attack is one of the most explosive in the league. Vermes was successful as a player in the postseason, and seems to be replicating that in his coaching career.  

 

 

COACH

 

Dominic Kinnear proved his side is much more than just a team in transition, as it impressively shut down a dangerous Philadelphia side in the Conference Semifinals. The wily Scot has won the trophy four times, twice as assistant coach with San Jose in 2001 and '03, and back-to-back as Houston head coach in '06 and '07. His trusty veteran duo of Ching and Davis has been able to get Kinnear’s message across to the squad clearly and effectively as he lines up yet another trip to MLS Cup.

KC have so many options from the bench it is scary. Soony Saad and Arnaud have been regular contributors from the bench, and Bravo could well be back fit to play from the bench or start. Either way, the Mexican DP would be a huge boost to have back after he missed the second leg against Colorado through a groin strain.

 

BENCH

 

With the likes of Costly ready to make an impact when called upon, Houston's bench suddenly looks a lot stronger. However, their lack of depth in defensive areas could be a cause for concern, so Kinnear will hope that his men stay healthy and no changes will be necessary.

SKC have shown so far in the postseason how ruthless they are in front of goal and how stingy they are at the back. Always a wonderful combination. However, just one step away from the MLS Cup, can the young guns hold their nerve to see KC through to their first final since 2004? If they score an early goal and get their tails up, then it’s hard to see anything other than a Sporting win. Bunbury, Sapong and Kamara will give the Dynamo fits all day long, as the 3-0 win on Sept. 10 proved how difficult the youngsters are to contain. But the one factor that has yet to be discussed – the noisy home crowd – could make all the difference.

 

OVERALL

 

The Dynamo have already exceeded many people’s expectations by making it to the Eastern Conference Championship. However, they will not want to stop there, as their experienced veterans drive the squad on towards glory. But to get past SKC, they will have to be at their best defensively. Cameron and Boswell need to stop the free-scoring KC whiz kids, and then they must rely on Ching and Carr to come up with a big goal from one of Davis’ sweetly struck set pieces. The more chances Davis’ gets to deliver crosses, the more chance Houston have of advancing to MLS Cup 2011.