KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There's stingy, and then there's the defensive number Sporting Kansas City have done on Houston in their last five meetings. If they can keep it up for one more match, they'll be in their first MLS Cup final since 2004.
Since the Dynamo's 2-0 win in the first leg of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals, on their way to a second straight MLS Cup appearance, Sporting have conceded just once. And since that goal, in a 1-1 home draw on May 26, they've recorded two clean sheets against their old nemesis – including a scoreless draw in the first leg of this year's Eastern Conference Championship two weekends ago.
That's a 0.2 goals-against average for veteran goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen over that span. And that, Nielsen said, poses its own set of challenges for Saturday night's decisive second leg at Sporting Park (7:30 pm ET; NBCSN, Univision Deportes, TSN2/RDS2 in Canada).
“It's a little more different and a little more difficult for me to be the goalkeeper for Sporting Kansas City, compared to my first two years here,” Nielsen told reporters on Thursday. “I'm not saying we were bad, but we gave up a lot more chances. Here, you don't face a lot of shots, and you've got to step up at the moment. You're not automatically in the game all the time. You lose rhythm in the game. You don't touch the ball for 10, 15 minutes sometimes.
“I'm not complaining about that,” Nielsen added. “I'm happy to play on a great team and a solid team. I'm just saying it's different, and it's difficult.”
Still, it's not a bad problem to have.
“We're extremely confident,” left back Seth Sinovic told MLSsoccer.com. “And I say this every time: It's not the back four. It's not Jimmy. It's the team as a whole. It really starts with the forwards up top pressing, and we read off of them. We've had so many guys that have played here for three or four years now and we're comfortable with each other and I think that shows in the way we defend.”
But while recent results have gone their way, Sporting know they'll need to keep it up in Saturday's winner-take-all match.
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“We have to be careful on set pieces,” center back Aurelien Collin said. “They're dangerous on set pieces. We have to be careful about not making any stupid fouls. They have a lot of tall guys – the center backs, the strikers, they're quite tall. But I think the game's going to be the same as last year. We're going to be pushing, pushing, so we have to be very good in central defense while we're trying to score goals.”
Sporting manager Peter Vermes said on Thursday that restarts don't pose the only threat.
“They can do it through the run of play, through counters, through very good buildup, through set pieces. So they have all those qualities,” Vermes said during the club's weekly news conference. “That's why they're in this position every year. So all those games were great because they helped us evolve. But they don't necessarily tell the story of what's going to happen in this next game because it's a game where both teams are out for the same result, and that's to win, and they are a very experienced team.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.