Dynamo's dominance in the Houston heat will test Sporting's ageing core
Two teams that met twice in the last three weeks of the season get to renew acquaintances in the knockout round of the 2017 MLS Cup playoffs. Here is how the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City shape up heading into Thursday's postseason duel.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better team on the counterattack than the Dynamo. Wilmer Cabrera's side have no issue sitting back, absorbing pressure and then releasing any two- or three-man variation of Erick "Cubo" Torres, Romell Quioto, Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas into space, usually with Alex setting the table.
Houston is also one of the strongest teams in the league at home, losing just once at BBVA Compass Stadium, a late 1-0 defeat to the Colorado Rapids in the team's first home match since Hurricane Harvey. The humid conditions in Houston favor Cabrera's men and should be an asset on Thursday.
While the Dynamo defense has improved in recent weeks as the team finished the year with three wins and three draws, the back four is still a concern, especially now that right-back A.J. DeLaGarza is out with a torn ACL.
In his place Jalil Anibaba will likely get the nod. Anibaba filled in nicely in Sunday's 3-0 win over Chicago after replacing DeLaGarza in the 13th minute, but he has only started once since April. On top of that, the Dynamo will sorely miss DeLaGarza's leadership and playoff experience.
Why they'll win
The Dynamo thrive at home, and their quick transition game against a Sporting KC team that has several key members on the wrong side of 30 can prove decisive. The Dynamo also have a bit of a mental edge from defeating Sporting 2-1 on Oct. 11 and then earning a 0-0 draw four days later in Kansas City. Add to the fact that SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia will miss Thursday's game on top of Houston's six-match unbeaten streak, there is every reason to feel like the Texans will emerge victorious.
Sporting Kansas City
Even with Melia out for Thursday's contest, Sporting still boast a very strong defense, especially at center-back. Ike Opara has arguably been the best defender in the league this season, while Matt Besler's credentials are there for all to see. Ilie Sanchez's role as the defensive midfielder will be crucial. One of the best new additions of the season, the Spaniard will be tasked with cutting down any potential Houston counterattack. This is also a very proven side; they showed as much in winning the U.S. Open Cup. They have shown they have the mentality to win in a tournament format.
While it's not as bad as the Colorado Rapids from a season ago, the Sporting KC attack lacks the punch of Thursday's opponent with just 40 goals scored. The goals will need to come from somewhere, but can they really count on Diego Rubio (six goals in 11 starts), Latif Blessing (three goals) or Gerso (eight goals) to provide?
There is also the slump factor. Ideally, coach Peter Vermes could flip a switch and return this team to the form they showed in mid-summer when they were at or near the top of the conference. But there's the nagging sense that 30-plus midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Roger Espinoza could get overrun on Thursday.
Why they'll win
The old mantra is that defense wins championships and Sporting KC have that in spades. There is also the experience of the MLS postseason to take into account. Vermes and Sporting have loads of it, while these are relatively uncharted waters for Houston. Also, Blessing's pace against the untested Anibaba can tip this in SKC's favor. They will look to exploit the Dynamo down that left flank.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .