There's a lot of reasons to think Sporting Kansas City is the prohibitive favorite in the Eastern Conference finals. After slogging through a scoreless tie in the first leg, KC heads home only needing a win to secure their first MLS Cup appearance since 2004. By any reasonable metric, they are the better team. They had the better record, the better goal-difference and the better roster from top to bottom.
What KC doesn't have, though, is history. For all the struggles the Houston Dynamo have endured this year, this is the time of year they tend to turn things around. On paper, they were probably not supposed to beat the Montreal Impact, let alone the New York Red Bulls. And it was the same story last year, when they knocked Kansas City out of the playoffs for a second straight year.
They Dynamo will be attempting to qualify for their third straight MLS Cup and their fifth since 2006.
1. How does Houston score? The best defense in MLS over the past two seasons has been Sporting KC. There's not big mystery why: Their high-pressure defense does a superb job of limiting shots and often forces opponents into turnovers. In four meetings this year, the Dynamo have only scored a single goal and it's not like they were offensive juggernauts against anyone else. While they can technically still advance without scoring -- yay shootouts! -- chances are they need to find the back of the net at least once in order to get past KC. Usually, I'd say their best chance will come on a set piece where Brad Davis is among the best in the business. But KC's big centerbacks make that advantage negligible at best. More likely, the Dynamo's best chance is like Giles Barnes or Omar Cummings getting out on a counter-attack.
2. Can Peter Vermes get out of his own way? Give credit where it's due: Vermes has done a great job of giving Kansas City a personality. Teams know they are going to have to be prepared for a full-field assault whenever they square off with Vermes' side. Over the long season, that has worked great as KC has gone into the last three postseasons among the best teams in the league. But it hasn't translated to a lot of postseasons win, as Vermes has guided KC to a pretty pedestrian 4-3-1 record. At least some of that is coaching and, lately, Vermes seems more interested in complaining about referees than looking at anything he could be doing better.
3. Will a team starting Jacob Peterson really make MLS Cup? Take a quick look at Sporting KC's roster and you'll notice a lot of guys with talent to burn. Benny Feilhbaber, CJ Sapong, Teal Bunbury, Claudio Bieler ... the list goes on. Thing is, it's entirely possible that none of them start on Saturday. Meanwhile, Peterson could well be in the starting XI for the third time in four playoff games. This is a player with 13 career goals in eight career MLS seasons, including zero this year. Why? Vermes must like his work rate, which is fine, but this team needs to figure out ways to score that don't involve defenders making spectacular plays and it's hard to see Peterson helping much in that regard.
4. Is Kofi Sarkodie the best right back no one is talking about? I'm not entirely sure how this happens, but a few years ago Sarkodie was supposed to be the breakout star from Akron. Instead, he struggled a bit in his rookie year and people seem to have forgotten about him. But he's quietly had a very solid season, picking up four assists and starting 33 of 34 regular-season games. He also should have had a goal last week, if not for a highly questionable off-side flag. Who knows if he's a difference maker on Saturday, but this just deserved to be said.
5. What becomes of Bieler? It's still not entirely clear what has happened to Sporting KC's leading scorer. A few months ago, he was the toast of the town and even got the winning goal in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But he hasn't started a game since Sept. 7, leading many to question if it's not just a nagging injury that is keeping him out. If he doesn't start in this game, there's a good chance KC will once again be saying goodbye to a Designated Player after just one season.
Match date/time: Saturday, November 23, 7:30 p.m. ET
Venue: Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kansas
TV: NBCSN, Univision Deportes, TSN2
Streaming: NBC Sports Live Extra