Omar Cummings

What we learned from Sporting Kansas City, Houston Dynamo scoreless draw

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  • Blame Major League Soccer’s playoff schedule for this dead fish of a match

This is what MLS gets for its ill-considered playoff scheduling, for stacking the matches in such a hurry – a humdrum stalemate, a contest with very little happening on either side.

Dulled further by referee Kevin Stott’s choice to be lenient with the whistle (that went both ways), it was hardly a hardy advertisement for the league. Too bad, too, as this one was on NBC rather than NBCSN.

But, we’ve covered this ground before at ProSoccerTalk. So we’ll just move on.

  • Long throw-ins as real weapons

So much of Saturday’s opportunity factor, what there was, came from long throw-ins. Matt Besler’s tosses from the touchlines are always liable to create some danger for his Sporting Kansas City. But when those zippy deliveries happen inside the league’s most narrow field, they become greater weapons, still. In fact, they are ballistic objects, screaming into the opposition six with a vengeance.

Houston created some danger, too, from those same touchlines. Mike Chabala came in for the suspended Corey Ashe at left back. And while the Dynamo probably lost some push up that side, Chabala provided a bonus: he can throw balls into the six, too.

Chabala’s throws arrived on something of a less lethal trajectory than Besler’s, but did produce some limited bother, at least.

(MORE: Match recap as Sporting KC-Houston play to 0-0 draw)

  • Clark’s injury forces Dynamo formation, personnel shuffle

How much of a compliment is this? When Houston’s Ricardo Clark left after 25 minutes (due to a knee injury), Houston manager Dominic Kinnear had to reconfigure his entire personnel and formation arrangement.

Reason: Clark covers so much ground. So Houston’s 4-4-2 wasn’t being overly bothered by the visitors’ man advantage in the middle. Clark and Warren Creavalle were keeping pace in the center with SKC’s 4-2-3-1, with Paulo Nagamura and Oriol Rosell in defensive support behind playmaker Benny Feilhaber. (Feilhaber had limited influence on the game, as his quest to regain greater relevancy continues to stall.)

Kinnear responded by shifting into a 4-3-3. Andrew Driver came in for Clark, stationed on the left wing.  Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia, previously on the Dynamo wings, came inside to play at the top of the midfield “V” ahead of Creavalle. Omar Cummings moved out to the right, with Will Bruin playing as the lone striker.

  • Aurelien Collin’s lucky day

Sporting Kansas City center back Aurelien Collin, so talented and so tough to beat, but always the antagonist and instigator, had himself a pretty lucky day all things considered. The Frenchman was quite good in dealing with Houston’s physical Will Bruin. (And in the second half with Bruin’s replacement, the equally physical Cam Weaver.) But Collin also sidestepped some real danger as Stott went easy on the whistle (for both sides, but especially as it concerned Collin.)

Collin was sitting on a yellow card and would have missed the return leg with a booking Saturday. So he was fortunate that Stott did see him barge into Houston center back Bobby Boswell off the ball in the first half. Another referee might have cautioned both players for the naughty little burst of nonsense.

Later, Collin was called for a foul but evaded the potential second-half booking when he tripped Cummings as the speedy Houston man moved around him dangerously just outside the penalty area.

Later still, Collin stepped on Weaver’s foot at the edge of the penalty area. And before it was over, Collin wrapped his leg around Brad Davis from behind, getting some of the ball but still tackling from a poor position, never prudent while toting a playoff yellow card. (And it wasn’t in an area of the field where Collin needed to knife in so brazenly.)

(MORE: Sporting KC Man of the Match, Aurelien Collin)

  • Tally Hall still not at his best

Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall has certainly had his moments of good and bad through four playoff contests so far.

Saturday, he had a couple more wobbles, although Sporting KC could not punish him for one booboo in positioning and one poor moment of ball handling. Both nervous instances came off one of those Besler throw-ins.

In the first half, Hall stepped out quickly but then got caught in traffic. So he was well out of position when Graham Zusi’s header dropped in behind him, although high of the target.

In the second half, Hall did reach one of Besler’s bullet throw-ins … but then dropped it, even though he wasn’t challenged with any force by a Sporting KC man. That was in the 83rd minute, and conceding a goal there would surely have been a soul crusher for the Dynamo.

  • Mike Chabala passed the test

A real worry for Houston on Saturday was how to replace steady left back Corey Ashe, who was suspended for the series opener for collecting a second post-season yellow card in Wednesday’s win over New York. Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear said he changed his mind several times before settling on reserve defender Mike Chabala.

It looked like a tough matchup, a man who had played in just one MLS match this year (Chabala) against a U.S. international and MLS All-Star (Graham Zusi). But Chabala held up well, rarely allowing Zusi to find his way into the game from his advanced right-sided spot in SKC’s 4-3-3.

As Chabala was getting significant help from Brad Davis (and then Andrew Driver after the Clark-related reshuffle), Zusi began drifting inside to locate space. SKC right back Chance Myers never added much pressure on Chabala’s side; in a tight match featuring two tired teams, none of the four outside backs made significant attacking contributions to this one.

Highlights, from NBC:

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Houston-Kansas City Man of the Match: Sporting’s Aurélien Collin

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A Man of the Match is often defined by the player who can cease a moment and turn a game in his team’s favor, but in a two-legged tie, teams often decline to create such moments over the first 90 minutes. They those as the first half of a 180-minute game, and as such, they’re unwilling to embrace the risks are entailed with pressing for a result. On Saturday, with both Houston and Sporting Kansas City playing on two days’ rest, there were no legs to pursue glory, leaving few individuals who stood out.

But in a match that became about preserving the status quo, the man who did the most to that end was Aurélien Collin, whose clean up work at the back was crucial to Kansas City’s ability to keep a clean sheet. Whereas the French defender make his mark in attack in the postseason’s first two games (scoring in each leg against New England), today he did so at the back, posting match highs in tackles (five) and clearances (20).

They’re numbers which describe what was at times a commanding performance. With Houston pumping in 15 crosses (to Kansas City’s eight), Collin’s aerial presence helped diffuse any drama before it started, with the Dynamo only able to muster three shots on target. Collin won seven duels and was key to making sure the great service Cam Weaver saw early in the second half never troubled Jimmy Nielsen.

It wasn’t a perfect performance, but even when Collin make mistakes, he made the right decisions to mitigate his errors. In the 53rd minute, Collin was nearly beaten wide down Houston’s left just outside the penalty area, but he elected to take down Omar Cummings rather than let the Dynamo attacker have his choice of targets from the byline. It was Collin’s worst moment of the match, but even then, he made sure it didn’t hurt Sporting.

He wasn’t the only standout of the day, and depending on how you feel about Collin, Oriol Rosell or Matt Besler may have looked better. Collin, now in his third year in Major League Soccer, has a style of play many will never grow to love.

Yet Saturday was a reminder that when you take away the physicality and league-leading number of yellow cards, the 27-year-old is one of the best defenders in Major League Soccer. And after one leg in Houston, he’s one of the main reasons it’s still 0-0 going back to Kansas City.

MLS playoff focus: Notes on the Houston Dynamo ahead of Saturday’s first leg against Sporting KC

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Ahead of Saturday’s first leg of this Eastern Conference finals series, here are the must-knows about Dominic Kinnear’s Houston Dynamo. A trip to MLS Cup 2013 is on the line. (Saturday’s match kicks off at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and can also been seen on NBC Sports Live Extra)

  • Any gas left in the Dynamo tank?

Houston is playing its 6th match in 17 days, a fairly ridiculous (and certainly taxing) run of games. Players aren’t complaining, and their mantra of “We can rest in the post-season” is an honest and logical response. Still, there has been so much travel and so many tough matches (with a lot riding on every one) that you really have to wonder about the physical state of the team.

Especially as manager Dominic Kinnear has done so little rotating in the starting lineup. He really didn’t have a choice since the team was fighting so hard to go through in Champions League, to get into the playoffs and then to advance past Montreal and then New York in those playoffs.

The team finished 120 minutes against New York on Wednesday night, flew back into Texas the next day and was right back on the practice field for a light workout Friday, just 24 hours before the weekend kickoff.

“All the guys are feeling like they played 120 minutes two nights ago, so it’s been a difficult and pretty quick turnaround,” U.S. international midfielder Brad Davis said Friday via national conference call from Houston. “It is what it is. Both teams have to handle it. I think it’s really going to be a mental thing more than a physical thing at times. I think the guys are a little bit sore, but I don’t think they care about it too much. We’re looking forward to the game.”

(MORE: PST match preview, Sporting KC at Houston)

  • Ashe suspended, plus yellow card warning for the Dynamo

Houston left back Corey Ashe will sit out after collecting his second booking of the playoffs Wednesday in New York.

Two yellow cards in the playoffs means the offender sits out the following match. Right winger Boniek Garcia is the only other Houston man on caution warning. His would be an enormous loss, however, as the Dynamo’s most creative player. A killer pass from the Honduran international set the wheels in motion for Omar Cummings’ series-winner Wednesday at Red Bull Arena.

Remember, starting Jermaine Taylor is already missing along Houston’s back line. Eric Brunner has filled in for the Jamaican international.

Most likely replacement for Ashe: Mike Chabala, who has played sparingly for the Orange this year. Kinnear could also move Warren Creavalle there, as the versatile second-year man has spent some time at BBVA in the outside back position. That would require a midfield makeover, however, most likely with Davis sliding inside and Andrew Driver taking Davis wide role on the left side of Houston’s 4-4-2.

Or, could this be a way to get Omar Cummings, scorer of two critical goals off the bench against New York, into the starting 11? That would mean dropping Giles Barnes into the midfield for Creavalle.

  • Crunching numbers, and getting things right at the right time

Everyone knows Dominic Kinnear-coached teams know how to win in the playoffs. But it’s more than that; Kinnear’s teams know how to get their stuff together generally at the right time of year.

Consider that since a bad loss at home to New York back in mid-September, the Dynamo is 6-1-3 in MLS regular season and playoff matches.

Speaking of records, and since we cannot do one of these without mentioning Kinnear’s fantastic playoff record – especially since it keeps getting better in the current post-season – let’s get this over with.

Kinnear is now 14-7-4 in playoff matches with Houston. (Does he move ahead of Bruce Arena as “King of all MLS Playoffs” since the Galaxy is now out of this thing?)

And finally this: Kinnear’s team is 8-1-1 in playoff games in Houston since moving to South Texas from San Jose in 2006.

Houston Dynamo Man of the Match: Omar Cummings

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Houston was never destined to get a bunch of chances in its big, second-leg contest Wednesday in New Jersey. The Dynamo, up against its fifth match in 14 days, playing on the road, and facing a star-strewn team with about three times the payroll, had to play it safe all along.

That meant not putting many numbers into the attack … and clinging tightly to abundant faith. The faith was that one of the Dynamo playmakers, perhaps veteran U.S. international Brad Davis or Honduran international Boniek Garcia, could capitalize on one of the few thrusts Houston would have.

Davis did, finishing clinically when he picked off an ill-advised pass in the Red Bulls defensive third before the break Wednesday. Garcia did his part, too, at the moment of series-turning truth.

But it was Omar Cummings scoring a huge goal yet again, who won the series for his hard-working, overachieving club. Cummings was the hero on Sunday, too, finding the equalizer two minutes into stoppage time in Sunday’s 2-2 draw in Texas. Both goals came off the bench.

Garcia launched the telling sequence with a sweet little release along the right for outside back Kofi Sarkodie. Cam Weaver worked the ball back across goal, and Cummings worked his way inside his mark, getting just enough on the 104th minute shot (14 minutes into extra time Wednesday) for the goal that puts Houston that much closer to its fifth MLS Cup appearance in eight years.

(MORE: Houston stuns New York, advances into Eastern Conference finals)

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MLS playoff focus: Notes on Houston Dynamo ahead of Wednesday’s second leg at New York

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  • Ridiculously busy days for the Dynamo

The last two weeks have been an absolute whirlwind for Dominic Kinnear’s men. Most likely, a physically taxing one, too.

On Oct. 24 they were in Central America, falling in Champions League action to Panama’s Arabe Unido. Then they traveled …

On Oct. 27, they fought their way into the post-season by winning at D.C. United. Then they traveled …

Four nights later, on Oct. 31, they cruised past Montreal in a 3-0 elimination match win over the visitors from Canada. Keep in mind, that was three consecutive “elimination” matches. That’s a lot of mental stress and required focus. …

Three days later, last Sunday, they were on the field again in that 2-2 draw with New York. That second half rally was certainly something else, but it’s also fair to wonder how much that took out of the Dynamo, who may not have a bunch in the tank anyway. …

Now, just three days after that, Kinnear’s crew will be playing its fifth match in 14 days (with four lengthy plane trips). Let that sink in.

  • Penalty kick appeal at the end Sunday

The series looks different thanks to Ricardo Salazar’s choice to eject Jamison Olave in the 65th minute Sunday.

It was the right call. Olave was late. His tackle was from behind, reckless and potentially injurious. Furthermore, it was absolutely unnecessary (not that Salazar should factor that part … just saying.)

So perhaps the man in the middle would have been more inclined to whistle the late penalty kick appeal, as center back Ibrahim Sekagya clattered into Houston striker Omar Cummings from behind a step inside the penalty area. How different would we all feel about this series if Houston could play for the draw?

(MORE: Preview of Wednesday’s match at Red Bull Arena)

  • Ricardo Clark rising

Is there a Houston Dynamo man playing better right now that center midfielder Ricardo Clark?

Admittedly, no one will ever confuse the Dynamo’s rangy midfielder, better suited for a holding role, for a pass-master of Andres Iniesta quality. But he’s doing some creating work in the middle lately, playing slightly further forward than fellow Dynamo central midfielder Warren Creavalle. He supplied some tricky stuff in the team’s 3-0 win over Montreal and then provided a lot of gritty drive as the home team rallied Sunday to make up a two-goal deficit.

Clark probably gets a little more room in midfield because the man to his right, Boniek Garcia, gets so much defensive attention, drawing the second and third defender by taking on the first opposition arrival.

  • Omar Cummings off the bench

The Dynamo may have something in the ability to bring Omar Cummings off the bench. The former, longtime Colorado Rapids striker hasn’t put much of an imprint on his first Dynamo season, with much of the year spent still in injury recovery. But he did change the game Sunday upon his introduction for Giles Barnes.

Awareness of his speed may have prompted Olave to lunge into that telling tackle (the red card), which changed this series in an instant. Cummings may have drawn that penalty kick (see the item above) and then he did find some room to poke in that stoppage time equalizer.

Kinnear seems likely to stick with Barnes to start, but look for Cummings around the 60th minute once again, depending on the situation.

  • Better set-piece service from Davis ahead?

Davis’ service on restarts wasn’t consistent Sunday, probably having something to do with the short grass at BBVA Compass Stadium, where the fall weather has erased the regional growing season.

Players on both sides commented on the fast field, and it’s difficult to hit a precise restart when there’s no room to get beneath the ball just a bit.

The Dynamo has been dangerous on corner kicks and free kicks for so long, in large part, because Davis can reliably hit balls into the near post, far post or directly on top of the primary aiming point at the top of the six-yard box.