Sporting Kansas City is going to its third MLS Cup final – and hosting its first, as MLS Cup 2013 will be played at Sporting Park on Dec. 7.
Sporting KC got there on a frigid Saturday night with a 2-1 win over Houston in the second leg of the teams’ home-and-away aggregate goals Eastern Conference finals series. The team’s had played to a scoreless draw in the opening leg in Houston.
Benny Feilhaber, Kansas City’s former U.S. international midfield playmaker, had been rather quiet in that first contest. But he was huge in Saturday’s return leg, with an imprint on Kansas City’s first goal and a beautiful assist on Dom Dwyer’s 63rd-minute game-winner.
Fans inside the packed house at Sporting Park will certainly remember Saturday’s match for the tough conditions, the coldest temperatures ever recorded in MLS.
Temperature at kickoff was 22 degrees; the league began keeping records of weather conditions in 2003. MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche said before the contest that he believed Saturday’s match was indeed the coldest ever (regular season or playoff) going all the way back to the league’s 1996 launch.
With Saturday’s loss, the Houston Dynamo missed a bid to play in a third consecutive MLS Cup and a fifth final in eight years. Rather, Sporting Kansas City will participate in its third MLS Cup match, but its first since losing to D.C. United in 2004. Kansas City won MLS Cup in its only other championship game appearance, in 2000 (playing then as the Kansas City Wizards).
Houston was up against long odds in this one even before kickoff – and it had nothing to do with the record-setting weather. Former U.S. international midfielder Ricardo Clark, probably the most important Dynamo man other than U.S. international Brad Davis and possibly goalkeeper Tally Hall, was held out because of a knee injury collected in the opening leg. Although Clark had not trained during the two-week break, he had never officially been ruled out.
Houston was also without Will Bruin, its starting striker and a fringe U.S. national teamer.
As a result of Clark’s absence, Houston manager Dominic Kinnear pulled his team from its typical 4-4-2, re-aligning the side into a far less familiar 4-3-3 look.
The danger of another 0-0 stalemate (like the first leg) disappeared almost immediately as Houston’s Honduran international attacker Boniek Garcia finished an early surge with a shot that deflected into Kansas City goal after just three minutes.
Houston’s early goal was classic counter attacking stuff, as Feilhaber tripped over the ball while entering Houston’s defensive third. Houston’s Davis immediately set the visitors’ counter-attack into motion, with Andrew Driver soon beating Kansas City right back Chance Myers.
Eleven minutes later C.J. Sapong pounced first and with ferocity as a ball popped loose just inside Houston’s penalty area. Collecting the ball off a Dynamo tackle as a surging Feilhaber was stripped of possession, Sapong beat Tally Hall to the far post in the 14th minute.
Missed chances on either side marked much of the match, with Dwyer and Sapong failing from inside the six-yard box for KC, and Cam Weaver going well high on an uncontested shot from eight yards for Houston.
Feilhaber was front-and-center in events once again just after the hour mark, taking a pass from a galloping Graham Zusi and chipping a wonderful pass into stride for Dwyer for the game-winner.