By Kyle McCarthy
Sporting Kansas City visits Houston this afternoon to start their Eastern Conference semifinal series. Here are five points to watch when the two sides meet at BBVA Compass Stadium:
1. Traveling a difficult road: No MLS side has entered BBVA Compass Stadium and left with a victory since the venue opened earlier this year. Sporting would like to break that drought, but it must focus first and foremost on securing a decent result to avoid creating a difficult task in the second leg at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park on Wednesday.
2. Is Roger Espinoza fit?: Espinoza drives Sporting’s high-pressure approach from his usual spot in central midfield. He declared himself available after recovering from an ankle injury and Sporting manager Peter Vermes said he expects him to start. Espinoza must influence the game in his usual manner in order to give the visitors a chance to snatch the points.
3. Stretching the field horizontally: The two respective shapes - Houston in a straight 4-4-2, Sporting in its 4-3-3 setup - provide room for the Dynamo to exploit on the flanks. Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia must exploit those pockets of space and supply plenty of service into Will Bruin and Calen Carr to urge the Dynamo into the attacking third.
4. Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces: Both teams usually pose problems for the opposition on set pieces. Houston holds the edge in this category with its ridiculous productivity on corner kicks this year (eight goals in the regular season, plus Will Bruin’s opener at Toyota Park in midweek). Sporting defends that particular dead ball situation well (no goals conceded from corner kicks this season), but it must improve on free kicks to ensure Davis doesn’t find a way to hurt them.
5. Finding Zusi: Sporting must ensure Graham Zusi receives plenty of the ball whether he features in midfield (as a potential replacement for the injured Paulo Nagamura) or on the right flank (his usual spot during the second half of the season). If Zusi isn’t in the match, then Sporting will settle for aimless shots from distance and struggle to create gilt-edged opportunities from the run of play.