What we learned in Sporting Kansas City’s Eastern Conference championship win

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  • Peter Vermes, making all the right calls

SKC manager Peter Vermes got so much right Saturday, it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps it’s best to go back a few months.

Kansas City has had a powerful, talented team for three years, one capable of dominating opponents. But when Vermes’ club fell for a second consecutive year to Houston in the playoffs, the manager reckoned a change was needed.

His team was the league’s most aggressive in pressing high, which could make a lot of teams look small and overmatched. But, as Houston kept proving, perhaps it wasn’t a style best suited for the playoffs, particularly susceptible to a “grinder” club like the Dynamo’s.

So Vermes needed his team to be more patient, to possess the ball a little more and to selectively press teams after losing possession. He still wanted to put clubs under pressure – but he needed a change-up to offer, too. He wanted to beat teams in a different way when the time called for it.

At times in 2013, Vermes’ team looked like it had lost some of its identity due to the philosophical shift. When I asked him about it during the summer, Vermes more or less told me, “Let’s wait and see how it looks in the playoffs.”

Well, here we are — and it looks like he was 100 percent correct. His team played Houston to a useful, scoreless draw in the Eastern Conference finals first leg, never stretching itself, patiently playing out the draw. That set up KC to finish the job Saturday  … and it was “mission accomplished” in the 2-1 win.

(MORE: Sporting Kansas City Man of the Match)

Individually, Vermes is nailing all the right calls, too. How good does he look, for instance, in starting second-year man Dom Dwyer over pricey Argentine veteran DP Claudio Bieler? Dwyer proved the perfect scrapper for a bitterly cold night, one where a hard field and a hard ball created a less predictable match, one where effort and will became more of a factor.

Plus, Dwyer proved plenty skillful, working his way quickly and nimbly around a challenge before the game-winning, 63rd minute goal.

  • Benny Feilhaber can still be a game-breaker

Is there a more mercurial figure in MLS than Benny Feilhaber?

Unwanted in New England, where he was frequently ineffective, he made his way on the cheap to Kansas City in the off-season. There … well, his season really has been a mixed bag. Feilhaber drifted in too many matches, with too little effect. And he wasn’t even an automatic starter for Vermes.

But Saturday, the former U.S. international – it’s become so easy to forget that Feilhaber played for Bob Bradley in the 2010 World Cup — showed what a force he can be when focused, involved and properly motivated.

(MORE: Sporting KC downs Houston in Eastern Conference final)

Feilhaber’s paw prints were all over Saturday’s contest. He wasn’t always in tight control with his midfield work, with those passes or surging dribbles, but he was certainly aggressive in wanting to look forward and take the game to Houston, whether off the dribble or with the probing pass.

You want to see a probing pass? Watch his perfectly weighted ball into space for Chance Myers early, as the KC right back got to the end line and played a ball that Dwyer certainly should have stuck away from close range.

But speaking of balls that eventually land at Dwyer’s feet — that scooped pass from Feilhaber to Dwyer for the game-winner? What a thing of beauty!

  • Houston badly missed Ricardo Clark

Well, duh!

Of course Houston missed its rangy midfield ball-winner. But look at the note above and the point is driven home with crystal clarity. We shouldn’t take anything away from Feilhaber’s mighty night in the midfield, but it’s fair to wonder how different the game may have looked (especially in the center of the field) had Clark been around to disrupt Feilhaber’s playmaking?

Supported by fellow midfielders Paulo Nagamura and Uri Rosell in Kansas City’s 4-3-3, Feilhaber was free to roam, picking up balls in various spots, sometimes in deeper spaces, and then had time and space to turn and get his head up. If Clark is around, he probably doesn’t get that luxury, not as often, at least.

(MORE: Save the date — MLS Cup will be at Sporting Park on Dec. 7)

  • Sporting KC can win a big match at home, after all

The building is awesome, and the atmosphere is habitually intense … but for whatever reason, playing at Sporting Park has not always been a harbinger of success for Sporting KC.

Previous failures at Sporting Park included a 2011 loss to Houston in the Eastern Conference final, a 2012 setback in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals and a loss this year to lower tier Orlando City in a fourth-round U.S. Open Cup contest.

Plus, SKC’s record at home this year was 9th best of 10 playoff teams. So, winning at Sporting Park on Saturday must be a tremendous relief.

Once again, the highlights from Saturday night at Sporting Park:

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