There was nothing thrilling about the 0-0 draw between the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, and it would be unfair to criticize either team for it. Sporting had no incentive to attack, while the Dynamo were on their fourth playoff game in 10 days and lost one of their best players to injury in the first half. Both teams will see the result as a job well done and look forward to playing a bit better come the second leg.
Five questions answered
Before each game in the MLS Cup Playoffs, we ask five questions. Here's how the game answered them.
1. How tired are the Dynamo?
Tired enough that Dominic Kinnear took off a seemingly healthy Will Bruin, who was OK in the first half, and replaced him with Cam Weaver at halftime just to get some fresher legs into the game. It was fairly obvious throughout the game that Sporting KC was the fresher team. Still, Houston had enough in their legs to hold on for a draw.
2. Can Houston convert on set pieces?
The mystery of Houston's low set piece conversion rate continues into the Eastern Conference finals. Despite having one of the best dead ball strikers in the league in Brad Davis to go along with Bobby Boswell, Eric Brunner, Weaver and Bruin, the Dynamo haven't made the most of the aspect of the game that made them almost impossible to beat over the last two seasons.
3. Who does Peter Vermes turn to?
Vermes went a bit less defensive than he did on the road against the Revs, but still turned to a more conservative side than he will in the home leg. Paulo Nagamura was more effective than Lawrence Olum, while Benny Feilhaber made the starting lineup away from home, unlike last series. Teal Bunbury got the start up top and was predictably less effective than any of Claudio Bieler, C.J. Sapong, Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer have been this season.
4. Can SKC get goals from their forwards?
5. Is the Houston hex real?
If it is, whoever's put this hex on KC is very cruel. Sporting weren't great, but were the slightly better team and came away with a road draw. They're in a better position to beat Houston than they ever have been.
What we didn't expect
Ricardo Clark's injury: It was an instant gamechanger. Clark is so crucial to what Houston do that Dominic Kinnear had to completely re-arrange his formation when he went off, then make a purely fitness-based sub at halftime. It altered the game so much that nothing that transpired afterwards could have been predicted beforehand.
The big takeaway
This is still anyone's tie: Yes, Sporting will be favorites in front of a hyped home crowd after drawing away, but Houston has gotten results in Kansas City before. They're also going to head into that game rested, not exhausted like they were on Saturday. No one took control of the East final on Saturday, they merely delayed the part of the tie where someone has to try to win.
Man of the Match
Warren Creavalle: If the Dynamo crumbled after Clark went down, no one could have blamed them. Instead, they did a great job keeping Sporting from creating good chances and keeping the ball. Creavalle was a disruptive force in the center and helped Houston relieve pressure, passing considerably better than his midfield mates. He did more than enough to keep Houston in the tie in Clark's absence.
Everyone sits around and prays that they have enough time off for everyone to get healthy, but not so much time off that everyone's rusty for the return leg.