In a wild, wide-open MLS MVP race, Houston Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis has emerged as a leading candidate. He's an excellent passer and creative force for his team from open play, but the majority of his production this season has been due to his proficiency on set pieces. On corner kicks, indirect free kicks and direct free kicks, Davis is constantly a threat to score or create scoring chances for his teammates. His ability and his targets in the penalty area make Houston a threat to win games where they're completely overmatched.
Theoretically, the Philadelphia Union should have been able to do something to neutralize this threat. Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes are big, strong central defenders who are good in the air while Faryd Mondragon has a great command of his penalty area. It didn't work out that way as the Union were burned twice by Davis and his big targets in the box. The Dynamo played mediocre soccer throughout the two legs, but their set piece prowess guided them to an easy win.
Coming into the series against the Dynamo, the Philadelphia Union had allowed eight total goals on set pieces that were not penalty kicks, as well as nine total headed goals, either from set pieces or open play. Two goals were added to each of those totals after the Dynamo series. Coming into the Eastern Conference Final, Sporting Kansas City has allowed eight headed goals, along with 14 goals on non-penalty dead balls and 11 on indirect free kicks and corner kicks combined.
The central defense pairing of Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin isn't exactly small, frail or bad in the air, but they haven't been completely dominant in the air this year. Houston has scored 13 headed goals and Brad Davis is in spectacular form. Houston scoring on a set piece is a good bet. If they do it early enough, they'll sit on their lead, and they're just as good at that as they are at scoring on set pieces.
Sporting Kansas City are in very good form and they're playing at home. They will probably have more of the possession in this match. They will almost certainly play the prettier football, and they have more players capable of scoring goals from open play. If Houston scores on a set piece early - a distinct possibility - none of that will matter. The Dynamo won't look like the better team on Sunday night, but Brad Davis and their big bodies make that completely irrelevant.
We'll have live coverage of the Eastern Conference Final in our Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo StoryStream. For more on the two teams, check out Sporting KC blog The Daily Wiz and Houston Dynamo blog Dynamo Theory. For more on the rest of the MLS playoffs and the entire world of soccer, check out SB Nation Soccer.