KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It would make for better drama if Sporting Kansas City dripped with dislike for the club that has knocked them out of the last two MLS Cup Playoffs, if players and coaches alike looked across the bracket and sneered in their best Jerry Seinfeld voices: “Hello, Houston.”
But for all of their disappointing recent postseason history against the Dynamo, Sporting are taking a respectful and businesslike approach as they head into Saturday's first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium (2:30 pm ET; NBC, UNIVISION DEP., RDS2).
Center back Matt Besler did acknowledge that history, and his desire to make up for it, but with a shrug and a matter-of-fact tone.
“They're the team that I want to be matched up against,” Besler said on Thursday. “It would be enjoyable to beat them. They're the team that knocked us out the last two times, and we want to be the ones to knock them out this time. If that's personal, I guess it is.”
The way Sporting see it, their focus is on getting to the MLS Cup final for the first time since 2004 and locking up a second straight berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. It just so happens that the team in the way this year is the same one that beat them 2-0 in a one-match East final in 2011 and 2-1 on aggregate in the East semifinals last year.
“It's not personal,” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said after Sporting advanced to the conference final with a 3-1 overtime victory and a 4-3 aggregate decision over New England on Wednesday. “It's just amazing how we can meet each other all the time. It's going to be very, very exciting. Exciting games. It's a quick turnaround, so we've got to prepare ourselves as best as possible.
“I have the deepest respect for what they've done, the time I've been here in America,” Nielsen added. “They always find a way to get through into the playoffs, and in the playoffs as well. But this time, it's our time.”
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As competitive as SKC manager Peter Vermes is, though, wouldn't he get just a little extra pleasure from defeating Kansas City's playoff nemesis?
“I don't really think of it that way. I just don't think of it that way,” Vermes said. “We're in the Eastern Conference final, and we have an opponent against us that we've got to go up against, and we've got to find a way to win it. That's really what we're going after. I don't get caught up in all those other things. I'm more focused on the fact that we've got a job to do.”
And if recent results are any indication, Sporting have a good chance to complete that job.
They haven't lost to Houston in four matches since a 2-0 defeat in the opening leg of the 2012 conference semis, beating the Dynamo 1-0 in the return leg and going 1-0-2 against them this season.
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This season’s victory, a 1-0 decision on May 12, was the first win by any opponent in BBVA Compass Stadium. But in a conference call from Houston on Friday, Vermes cautioned against drawing too much from those results.
“Obviously, it's great from the perspective during the regular season when we're trying to get points and chase the Supporters’ Shield, and having been the first team to beat them here” he said. “But at the same time, it doesn't mean anything at this point in the season. As we know, they're very experienced team. They're a team that finds its form at the end of the season every year, and they're very, very difficult to beat.
“As much as those were good results, they don't do anything for us at the moment other than give us at least some idea that teams can come here and get a result.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.