KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Brad Davis and the Houston Dynamo get the lion’s share of the press clippings when it comes to set pieces for good reason.
The statistics might surprise you, though.
Houston are good — very, very good — on restarts. But the numbers suggest Sporting Kansas City might even have the upper hand on the Dynamo in dead ball productivity this season; i.e. goals scored from corner kicks, indirect free kicks, direct free kicks, penalty kicks and throw-ins.
Kansas City certainly don’t need to be reminded of that slight advantage as they prepare to host Davis and Houston on Sunday afternoon's Eastern Conference Championship (5:30 pm ET; FOX Soccer, FOX Deportes, live chat on MLSsoccer.com) for the right to play for the MLS Cup.
“We know the stats,” defender Matt Besler said, “and we kind of secretly know that we’re just as good on set pieces. I think we’re fine with kind of flying under the radar with that.”
Including five from Besler’s long throw-ins, Kansas City have scored 21 of their 54 goals this season from set pieces, including six of their last seven overall, which comes to 39 percent of their season total.
On the other side of the equation, Houston have scored 20 of their 48 goals from dead ball situations, accounting for 42 percent of their productivity in front of net and rendering the results from set pieces nearly identical between the two sides.
The biggest difference, it would seem, is Sporting’s imposing presence from throw-ins – five goals to the Dynamo’s one – and the fact that that Davis delivers his pinpoint service with his left foot while Graham Zusi strikes the ball with his right.
The Houston veteran has the clear advantage this season with 18 assists, including two in the playoffs, but Zusi has burst onto the scene with nine helpers so far in a breakout 2011 campaign.
“Brad Davis has been doing this for years,” manager Peter Vermes said. “It’s nothing special at the moment. He has been doing this forever. Graham is starting to come on the scene. He just has to be a guy who does it consistently.”
And despite all the recent attention showered on Davis and his burly targets in Brian Ching, Geoff Cameron, Bobby Boswell and Andre Hainault, Sporting have good reason to believe they’ll pose just as much danger from set pieces on Sunday as their opponents.
Of course, that’s an easy claim to make when you have Kei Kamara, Aurélien Collin and C.J. Sapong to aim for in the penalty area.
“I just have to throw it up there,” Zusi said, “and these guys will climb up and take care of the rest.”
And although Kansas City are confident they can take advantage of Zusi’s service for the second straight game, they also know they can’t overemphasize limiting Houston’s opportunities at the other end of the pitch.
Kamara, who spent a little more than a season in Houston before being traded to Kansas City in 2009, admitted they wouldn’t be able to eliminate the threat altogether but declined to elaborate on Vermes’ marking strategy.
That’s something Sporting are keeping in-house for good reason.
“If I tell you the best way right now, Dominic Kinnear will change his game plan so I can’t say that,” Kamara said with a smile. “That’s something that happens in the locker room. We’ve just got to be ready. The one thing that I know and everybody in the league knows that they do is a quick play. They’re always looking to play fast.”
No matter how either side approaches it, though, a trip to Los Angeles could very well come down to the feet of Davis and Zusi, Besler’s throws and two towering, aggressive groups of targets.
“We’re not scared,” Collin said. “We’re going to defend with a little more focus on their team because they’re very good on set pieces. But we’re good too, so it will be a good battle.”