This year's Eastern Conference final is exactly like the one from two years ago and a repeat of last year's conference semifinal, with Peter Vermes' boys the favorites against Dominic Kinnear's side, but being expected to win hasn't done a lick of good for Sporting thus far. The Dynamo have gotten the best of them in each of the past two years and KC have to be wondering what they did to deserve another matchup with Houston.
So Sporting has home field in the second leg -- that didn't help them in 2011 or 2012. Nor did Brad Davis going down injured two years ago or the Dynamo coming off of the play-in match last year. The game was tilted in Sporting's favor and the Dynamo ousted them anyway. But maybe, just maybe, the third time is the charm?
Sporting come into this match fresh off of a two-legged win over the red hot Revolution, even if it took extra time. Claudio Bieler netted the winner for KC and the hope is that the now-fit Argentine can give them the striker they so desperately need. They will need it against a Dynamo team that got a revelatory pair of performances from Omar Cummings and showed that Kinnear's playoff magic is in full effect by ousting Supporters' Shield winners New York in the conference semifinals.
We've seen this play before. Now it's time to find out if Sporting can write a new ending and bring the country's biggest soccer party, MLS Cup, to Kansas City.
The two teams meet first on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET., which will be televised by NBC. The second leg is set for Nov. 23 at 7:30 p.m. and will air on the NBC Sports Network.
1. How tired are the Dynamo? Saturday's first leg will be the Dynamo's seventh match in three weeks, a spell that includes five long flights, and they will be coming off of a grueling 120 minutes against the Red Bulls just three days earlier. Houston have a bit of depth, but they have a solid core that they have relied on for five of their six matches in the last few weeks. Many of those players were noticeably drained in New York on Wednesday and several more cramped up as the match wore on. At some point, you have to think that fatigue wins out.
2. Can Houston convert on set pieces? No team in MLS committed as many fouls as Kansas City and it wasn't particularly close. Sporting were whistled 511 times this season, 46 more than the next closest team, so it's a good bet that the Dynamo are going to have set piece opportunities. The question is whether or not they can get goals out of them. Once the best in MLS on set pieces, Houston was just 12th in the league this year. Worse, of their 13 set piece goals, only three came on free kicks. The Dynamo have to take advantage of Sporting's rampant fouling and that means finding their form of old, which isn't an unreasonable ask. After all, they do still have Brad Davis.
3. Who does Peter Vermes turn to? The Sporting manager has plenty of depth and plenty of question marks, which means he has plenty of choices to make. Lawrence Olum's injury should keep him out, which means Vermes has to choose between Paulo Nagamura and Benny Felhaber, or he can play them both in a three-man midfield with Oriol Rosell like he did on Wednesday. But if he does that, Graham Zusi has to play in the front three, which means only two spots for Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong, Jacob Peterson, Soony Saad and Claudio Bieler, all of whom saw time in the conference semifinal.
4. Can SKC get goals from their forwards? The sale of Kei Kamara to Middlesbrough and an injury to Bieler left Sporting without a forward who could find the net for much of the second half of the season. While Bieler scored 10 goals and Kamara scored seven, the quartet of Bunbury, Sapong, Peterson and Saad combined for just eight themselves. Even in the conference semifinals, three of Sporting's four goals came from defenders, with Bieler's extra time winner the only tally to come from a frontman. Whether Bieler, who has battled a groin injury and fell out of favor in KC, gets the nod up front remains to be seen, but with or without him, Sporting needs their front men to find the net because they can't depend on their defenders and midfielders to do all the goal scoring en route to MLS Cup.
5. Is the Houston hex real? The Dynamo have had Sporting's number in each of the last two years. Kinnear would out-manage Vermes, leaving KC clueless as Houston's composed and efficient play took them apart. KC just couldn't get out from the hex that Houston had on them, but then Sporting went out and won two matches against the Dynamo in the regular season. It was just the regular season, not the Eastern Conference final where the Dynamo have haunted Sporting, but maybe that was enough to turn the tables in this matchup? We'll find out over the next two legs.
Date/time: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET
Venue: BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, TX