MLS Playoffs 2012: Preview and Predictions for Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC

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MLS Playoffs 2012: Preview and Predictions for Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC
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The rigor of playoff soccer in the MLS is best suited for the two teams facing off this afternoon. 

The Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City will play the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal, and it will be closer than most people think.

Just four days after they outclassed the Chicago Fire for 90 minutes, the Dynamo is looking to continue its Cinderella run to the MLS Cup. 

With the first leg at BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston has a grand opportunity to take an early lead in the aggregate. 

The Dynamo is unbeaten at home this season (11-0-6). In fact, including the playoffs, the team is unbeaten in its last 25 home games and is yet to lose a match in the newly constructed fortress.

Led by Brad Davis (12 assists) and Will Bruin (12 goals), the Dynamo boasts an impressive attack that has given Sporting fits over the last few years.

In the previous six meetings between the two, Sporting has only managed to defeat Houston once (a 3-0 victory at home last season). The most crushing defeat came in the Conference Finals of last year’s playoffs—a 2-0 loss at Livestrong Park. 

Dynamo head coach Dom Kinnear is arguably the greatest postseason coach in the history of the MLS. 

His 11 playoff wins are the fourth most in league history, and he has led his team to three road victories in the last two playoffs. They won five in the previous two regular seasons combined.

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All signs point to another Houston victory, but not this year. This is not the Sporting Kansas City of years past, and they are looking to avenge the loss that has been seared into their brain since they were eliminated 364 days ago.

The greatest disparity that exists between these two teams is the defensive units. Sporting’s suffocating defense has allowed the fewest shots on goal (102) and the fewest goals (27) in the MLS this season.  

Look for Chance Myers and Co. to limit Houston’s width, but more importantly, succeed in shutting down the heart and soul of Houston’s offensive attack, Brad Davis.

With set pieces instrumental to a victory for either side, and 46 of Brad Davis’ 96 assists coming off corners, Sporting’s defensive execution inside the box is vital.

Unlike the Fire, they are far better equipped to handle the Dynamo's pristine competence on set pieces—don’t expect an Anibaba-like slip in this series.

Perhaps the greatest turn of events for this matchup came on Friday, when Sporting Coach Peter Vermes announced the return of midfielder Roger Espinoza. The Honduran national is ready to start today’s match after missing the last month with a right ankle injury.

It looks like the cavalry is on the way for Sporting.

His return will anchor the midfield and allow Graham Zusi (league-leading 15 assists) to push forward, while looking to feed Kei Kamara (11 goals) and C.J. Sapong (nine goals).

Sporting is well rested after their 11 days off and they are unbeaten in their last 12 MLS matches (7-0-5)—their last defeat was at the hands of the Columbus Crew on July 28.

There is no doubt goals will come at a premium in this series, and anything less than a two goal lead for Houston heading into the second leg will be fatal.

Sporting will have their revenge, but it will not be easy. The two will need extra time in order to determine a winner. 

Sapong leads Sporting with five game-winning goals this season—his sixth will come in extra time and be the single-most important goal of his career, allowing Sporting to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

First Leg Prediction: Houston Dynamo 1 - 1 Sporting Kansas City

Second Leg Prediction: Sporting Kansas City 1 - 0 (ET) Houston Dynamo

Sporting Kansas City advances 2-1 on aggregate

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