By DAN KARELL
Not even the frigid cold air in Kansas City on Saturday evening could turn down the heat inside Sporting Park.
Behind goals from once-reserve forwards C.J. Sapong and Dom Dwyer, Sporting Kansas City erased an early deficit to defeat the Houston Dynamo, 2-1, in the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals, advancing to the MLS Cup final for the first time since 2004.
With the win, Sporting KC ensures that the league’s annual championship game will be played at Sporting Park.
“I think as far as this series, we deserved it,” Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes said following the match. “We played smart and I think we showed real maturity. Even though they scored early, we never panicked.”
Following a scoreless draw in the first leg two weeks ago, both teams returned to the field in wintry conditions in Kansas City, Kan., with the game time temperature just 22 degrees. The Dynamo traveled without starters Will Bruin and Ricardo Clark due to injuries, while Paulo Nagamura started his third-straight game, allowing Benny Feilhaber to move forward.
Sporting KC began the match with a nightmare start, as shades of the last two years’ playoff disappointments began to creep in as early as the third minute. After a failed clearance from Sporting KC defender Aurelien Collin, Dynamo captain Brad Davis headed the ball to his right to Oscar Boniek Garcia. The Honduran international calmly made one defender miss before striking a shot that took a deflection and scurried in Jimmy Nielsen’s goal, giving the visitors a shocking 1-0 lead.
“One of the things we talked about (before the match) was playing under pressure,” Davis said. “They pressure high and fast, so we had to break their first level of pressure. When we did that we had a few chances.”
It didn’t take very long for Sporting KC to respond to the adversity though. Dwyer, who was all over the park all evening, had a couple of chances in the first 10 minutes, but like the first goal in the match, it was a mistake in the defensive third that lead to the game-tying goal.
A turnover by the Dynamo ended up at the feet of Sporting KC midfielder Benny Feilhaber, whose through ball was deflected by the foot of Dynamo defender Bobby Boswell. Luckily for Sporting KC, the deflection went straight into the path of Sapong on the right side of the box, who finished past the diving Tally Hall in the 14th minute.
“It was great because of the type of goal it was,” Sapong said. “It was one of those goals where (I was) focusing on staying alert and following the play, the ball finally took a bounce in my direction and I was able to put it in.”
The fast pace of the match continued on the hard surface as both teams had chances to take the lead before the end of the half. The Dynamo’s best chance came in the 30th minute when a marauding run from Corey Ashe ended up at the foot of reserve forward Cam Weaver, but the veteran’s shot flew well over the bar.
In the second half, Sporting KC came out with more energy, led by the constant running of Dwyer up top and even Feilhaber dropping back to defend at times.
Those two combined for the play of the game in the 63rd minute as Feilhaber played a beautifully weighted chip pass into the path of Dwyer, who took a touch, feinted past a defender, and calmly slotted home to complete the comeback.
“Benny just chipped the ball through and I don’t know if I just didn’t want to shoot with my right or what it was, but I kind of just didn’t think about it and touched it across,” Dwyer said. “Peter said to me on Friday that you don’t have to hit the top corner, just hit the net. Obviously, that’s in the back of my head and I just finished it off.”
Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, knowing his side had less than 30 minutes to find an equalizer, tried to improve his chances by bringing on Omar Cummings, Servando Carrasco, and even Jason Johnson to snag a goal, but even with the changes the Dynamo looked to run out of steam. The lively crowd at Sporting Park gave the home side a boost, and they ran out the clock on the Dynamo’s two-year run as Eastern Conference champions.
“I said last game was the loudest I have ever heard it,” Sapong said about the atmosphere at Sporting Park. “This game, by far, was definitely the loudest this stadium has ever been. It’s amazing just looking into the crowd and seeing everybody’s faces. It brings you an extra bit of energy and motivation.”
Kansas City will host MLS Cup on Dec. 7. The Portland Timbers host Real Salt Lake in the second leg of the Western Conference final on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET. RSL won the first leg 4-2.