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|The Houston Dynamo celebrate after defeating Sporting Kansas City 2-0 in the Eastern Conference final to reach MLS Cup.|
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- You don't get to four conference championship games in six years, not to mention three MLS Cup finals, without knowing how to win soccer games.
On a splendid night that painted an enchanting picture for all who hold Major League Soccer and its well-being dear -- courtesy of a tempestuous crowd at the league's finest facility, Livestrong Sporting Park, and a highly attractive game -- the Houston Dynamo demonstrated once more why they're one of the league's most successful franchises, discarding Sporting Kansas City 2-0 in the unfriendly surroundings. Their two championships as the Dynamo and two more as the San Jose Earthquakes, the club's previous incarnation before being moved, mean it can become the first franchise to win five championships in league history if Houston wins the MLS Cup on Nov. 20.
In their customary lineups -- Sporting in a 4-3-3 and the Dynamo in a 4-4-2 -- the teams settled into the pattern they would uphold throughout the game. Both played a high tempo and tried to attack where possible. Sporting had the most of the ball yet it was the Dynamo that would consistently lay claim to the better opportunities.
Sporting understandably stuck to the three-pronged attack that had won it the regular-season Eastern Conference championship. Yet with the Dynamo's tight-knit midfield enjoying the numerical advantage, Sporting's distributors Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar hadn't much of a chance to supply their front line. And when either team did push through the midfield breach, it was the Dynamo's defense that showed itself the sturdier one, save for a pair of tenuous back-balls from Andre Hainault to goalkeeper Tally Hall.
|Graham Zusi (left) of the Sporting Kansas City and Houston's Bobby Boswell go head-to-head in the Eastern Conference final.|
Houston created the two best chances of the first half. Luiz Camargo carved out some room for veteran striker Brian Ching, whose side-footed lob went over in the eighth minute. Brad Davis put Calen Carr through on goal in the 17th, but his finish was too close to Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who parried the ball away.
The Dynamo wobbled briefly after left-wing playmaker Brad Davis had to come off with an injury to his left quad in the 37th minute, ceding possession to Sporting almost entirely. But Houston composed itself swiftly and resumed running interference in the middle, cutting off supply to the Sporting forwards.
Sporting's defensive sloppiness eventually gave the Dynamo the only goal it needed. In the 53rd minute, Adam Moffat swung a free kick into the box, doing justice to the task he'd inherited from the injured dead-ball maestro Davis. It was headed back across goal by Jermaine Taylor, Davis' replacement, and bundled in by Hainault, who had simply beaten central defender Aurelien Collin to the ball.
The Dynamo clogged the center of the field even further, leaving Sporting frustrated and with no choice but to throw on more attacking players. Eventually, it pulled left back Seth Sinovic for another striker, Omar Bravo, and paid dearly. Not long after, in the 87th minute, Camargo slotted striker Carlo Costly through the gaping hole in the defense to slide in the game's second and last goal.
Tactically, it was a virtuoso performance from Dominic Kinnear's Dynamo, which displayed all the shrewdness and savvy of a team that has been there and done that. And therein lay the latest of Kinnear's achievements -- he was in charge throughout the Dynamo's 2006-07 title run, too, and has had to build his side. In a short span of time, he went from having one of the league's oldest teams to one of its youngest. And he doesn't have all that many pieces remaining from previous playoff runs. He lost three key players in recent years, with Dwayne De Rosario leaving after the 2008 season and Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark after 2009. But he's managed to foster continuity by allowing his championship-run holdovers like Davis and Brian Ching to become leaders and to honor his philosophy while missing just one beat, when his side failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2010.
"I think it's a good combination of experience and then young guys," said veteran defender Bobby Boswell. "We have a bit of swagger and you've got some absolute veterans that are proven winners. There was a calmness before the game, guys know what their job is and we were really prepared."
Kinnear kept enough experience on board to give his side a critical edge in games like these. "Experience calms you down a little bit," Kinnear said.
Most of all, the Dynamo had a precedent, a core that had seen this sort of situation before and knew how to guide its team through it. "I think it's huge," Davis said of his side's experience. "[Sporting] has tremendous skill but they're a young team and I don't think they have anybody that's been to a championship."
The difference was most apparent in the way the teams approached the game. Houston knew offensively it was overmatched. "They're very good going forward and attacking and the biggest thing we wanted to do was we didn't want them to just play easy out of the back and get an attack going," said Davis. "We wanted to put pressure on the ball and close down lanes."
But Houston also knew that inexperienced teams get overeager, sometimes undercutting their own superior ability and, in the case of this game, better possession. "The other thing that we wanted to concentrate on was having that patience when we did win that ball -- because we knew they were going to attack with a lot of numbers -- if we could break that first ling of pressure and be composed and break out in a good form we were going to get some opportunities," said Davis.
That's how the Dynamo outwitted Sporting and created the game's better chances against the run of play. And that's why the Dynamo knows it can win this time of year.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.