Peter Vermes still had offensive firepower on the bench late in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship. His last substitution, though, showed that Sporting Kansas City's manager was just fine reconvening in two weeks at Sporting Park with a 0-0 aggregate.
Vermes brought on forward C.J. Sapong for midfielder Benny Feilhaber in the 74th minute of Saturday's match against Houston, then made a striker-for-striker switch in the 76th when he subbed in Dom Dwyer for Teal Bunbury.
But in the 84th minute, he pulled winger Jacob Peterson and put in Ike Opara as a combo third center back/defensive midfielder – the second straight match, following Wednesday night's 3-1 overtime victory over New England in the second leg of the East semifinals, that Sporting finished the match with all three of their top central defenders on the pitch.
“It's a combination of things,” Vermes told MLSsoccer.com by phone after the match. “They were just pumping balls forward, and we wanted to make sure that we dealt with the aerial aspect of the game. The other is that he can be very dominant on set pieces, so in that regard it was important to have him.”
Sporting did have their chances, outshooting Houston 15-10, but Dynamo keeper Tally Hall had to make just two routine saves.
That's not out of line with what Vermes expected, though, after both sides had to go 120 minutes on Wednesday night.
“I thought we did one aspect of what we wanted to do, which is that we didn't want to give up any goals here,” Vermes said. “I thought that was an important aspect of the game tonight. It wasn't an easy game to play in, and we got a result. Now, it doesn't mean anything. Now, it's just a final at home.”
Vermes went into the match with four forwards and two defenders among his seven reserves. Factoring in backup 'keeper Eric Kronberg, that meant a game-day roster with no spare midfielders.
Given that Paulo Nagamura had played 97 minutes on Wednesday, after being out for two months with a nagging ankle injury, that looked a risky proposition at the opening whistle. But Nagamura went the full 90 plus seven minutes of stoppage time, once again earning his manager's praise.
“Absolutely incredible by him,” said Vermes, who two days earlier had said he didn't think he could get another long performance out of Nagamura on such a short rest. “I can't say enough about his fighting spirit and ability to figure out a way how to get himself through another 90 minutes. It was amazing.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.