Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sporting KC earns 0-0 draw to begin Eastern Conference Championship

Sporting Kansas City returns home for the decisive second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship even on aggregate after a scoreless draw at the Houston Dynamo on Saturday in the opening leg of the series.

Jimmy Nielsen made three saves for his 49th shutout in MLS competition (including playoffs) and lowered his career goals against average in the postseason to 0.84.

The Eastern Conference Championship series is decided by total goals scored in both matches with the return leg scheduled for Nov. 23 at sold out Sporting Park. The winner will advance to MLS Cup 2013, which Sporting Kansas City would host on Dec. 7 if the club reaches the championship match.

Houston showed the earliest signs of attacking intent at BBVA Compass Stadium with a shot on target in the game's fourth minute. Boniek Garcia struck his shot low from the corner of the penalty area on the right side of the field and Nielsen went down to his left to make his first save of the day.

Sporting Kansas City twice threatened off long throw-ins from Matt Besler in the opening 45 minutes, once on a Graham Zusi header at the top of the six-yard box that looped over the crossbar in the 11th minute and again in the 39th minute when Teal Bunbury's shot was cleared off the line by Kofi Sarkodie. The visitors matched their hosts in both shots (six) and shots on goal (two) in the first half with arguably the most promising scoring opportunity for Sporting KC coming at the 14-minute mark. Zusi cut inside the penalty area on the right flank and played his pass to the penalty spot where Jacob Peterson checked back for a first-time attempt with his right foot that dragged wide of the far post.

The Dynamo, MLS Cup finalists each of the last two seasons, weren't without dangerous moments of their own and put the ball in the net in the 17th minute only to see it called back for offside. Sarkodie combined with Omar Cummings on a give-and-go inside the area but was spotted in an offside position by assistant referee Adam Wienckowski at the time of the final pass.

Brad Davis drew a foul from fellow U.S. international Matt Besler in the 28th minute and Nielsen was forced into a sprawling save to his right on the ensuing free kick from Garcia. Will Bruin, with six postseason goals in his three-year professional career, then came close in the 39th minute on a well-taken attempt from over 30 yards out that carried just beyond the crossbar.

Possession in the second half was a 50/50 split between the two sides, though Sporting KC had a 9-4 advantage in shots over the final 45 minutes. Three of the Dynamo's four shots in the half came in the 54th minute following a free kick from Davis. Substitutes Cam Weaver and Andrew Driver each had their shots from inside the area blocked by Peterson and Seth Sinovic, respectively, before Garcia's third try on net was then turned away by Chance Myers.

Each team was credited with just one shot on goal in the second half and they came in back-to-back minutes. Benny Feilhaber played Bunbury into space in the 56th minute but his shot from 15 yards out was held by Tally Hall with the Dynamo defense scrambling to cover.

On the opposite end, halftime substitute Cam Weaver got on the end of a cross from Mike Chabala and directed his header on frame and into the arms of Nielsen on the goalline.

Chances continued to be created and Feilhaber's effort from 25 yards out rolled inches wide of the post in the 58th minute. Five minutes later, Paulo Nagamura was brought down by Sarkodie at the top of the penalty area but the Dynamo defender did well to head away Feilhaber's free kick on the set play that followed. The momentum continued to favor Sporting KC as Aurelien Collin connected on the ensuing throw-in from Besler only to have his header fly narrowly high of the bar.

Both defensive units clamped down and refused to allow a shot on either end of the field for the next 25 minutes until Dom Dwyer and Nagamura each had their last-gasp looks blocked in the 89th minute. With each team having played 120 minutes in their semifinals series three days earlier, neither club could muster a dramatic game-winner through seven minutes of stoppage time and referee Kevin Stott blew the final whistle to set the stage for the second leg rematch in two weeks' time.

A limited number of standing room only tickets are available for the Nov. 23 series finale, presented by Ivy Funds, and can be purchased online at The match will kick off at 6:30 p.m. CT with a national television audience on the NBC Sports Network (English) and Univision Deportes (Spanish).