MLS playoffs: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of Saturday’s second leg conference final against Houston

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Ahead of Saturday’s second leg of this Eastern Conference finals series, here are the must-knows about Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC. A trip to MLS Cup 2013 is on the line. (Saturday’s match kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, and can also been seen on NBC Sports Live Extra)

  • Seth Sinovic as KC’s key man?

Sporting Kansas City has so many talented types who gobble up most of the acclaim. There are U.S. internationals Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, All-Star center back Aurelien Collin, former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Jimmy Nielsen and U.S. World Cup veteran man Benny Feilhaber. Even right back Chance Myers is a former No. 1 overall MLS draft choice.

But might left back Seth Sinovic (pictured) be the team’s key man on Saturday?

It will be on Sinovic to contain Boniek Garcia, Houston’s most dangerous attacking threat. (It will, that is, unless the potential injury absence of Ricardo Clark means some kind of a tactical shift for the Dynamo, one that brings Garcia to the inside.)

Sinovic rarely gets mentioned, but he’s a tough defender who also manages to add something to Sporting KC’s attack. Heck, he’s even become a mini-Mr. November, having struck his first career goal last year in the playoffs against … wait for it … Houston! And then just more than two weeks ago, Sinovic’s wonderful, powerfully struck shot against New England was a swell to watch as it was absolutely vital; his goal in the 79th minute from Zusi’s flicked-on header sent the team’s second-leg Eastern Conference semifinal into extra time.

(MORE: PST playoff preview — Houston at Kansas City)

Now, how much he’ll feel comfortable getting forward against Houston, knowing it’s on him to protect against Garcia’s ability on the counter-attack, we’ll have to see. Here is what Vermes says about Garcia: “I think he’s a great addition to our league. He’s definitely a dangerous player and somebody you have to keep your eye on that can turn the game on its head by one of his actions. Houston has a lot of players that we have to take account for during a game. He’s definitely one of the guys that is high on the list.”

  • Besler and Zusi are fresh

Sporting Kansas City fans, who would typically relish seeing their men on the international stage, exhaled deeply almost two weeks ago when U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann declined to call Graham Zusi and Matt Besler for a pair of friendlies in Europe.

Both men are in good places when it comes to those highly sought World Cup roster spots – pure gold in any soccer players’ career. If Klinsmann had called them for the exhibitions against Scotland and Austria, they would have been in a very awkward spot. So … no awkwardness needed.

Besler will be in his usual spot along the back line, as the stabilizer arm for the more volatile Aurelien Collin. And Zusi will be in the midfield or (more likely) in a slightly more advanced spot along the right in his team’s 4-3-3.

(MORE: ProSoccerTalk’s picks for MLS Defender of the Year

  • Kansas City and hiccups and home

The team has reason to be confident, having more or less done the business in Houston (navigating a 0-0 draw). But there is a legacy of, well, not getting the business done at home.

Other than the two post-season crash-out (both to Houston) at Sporting Park, the team fell to a lower-tier club at home this year in the U.S. Open Cup.

Overall in 2013, the picture at home doesn’t look much better: Kansas City’s record at home in the regular season this year (9-5-3) was 9th among 10 MLS playoff teams.

On the other hand, Kansas City has been nearly unbeatable on defense against Houston – pretty much wherever the clubs have met. Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen has posted four shutouts against Houston the last five times these teams have played. That includes three games in Texas this year (two in the regular season and the playoff contest two weeks ago.)