Sporting KC travels to Houston Thursday for Knockout Round of playoffs

Bitter rivals will lock horns for the third time in two weeks when No. 5-seed Sporting Kansas City (12-9-13, 49 points) visits the No. 4-seed Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference Knockout Round of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs on Thursday.

Live coverage of the single-elimination showdown at BBVA Compass Stadium begins at 8:30 p.m. on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports GO and UniMas, while local radio broadcasts will air on Sports Radio 810 WHB (English) and La Grande 1340 AM (Spanish).

Sporting KC and Houston have already dueled twice this month, settling for a scoreless draw on Oct. 15 at Children’s Mercy Park four days after the Dynamo earned a 2-1 comeback victory at BBVA Compass Stadium.

The first meeting of 2017 also unfolded in Houston, as Sporting KC used goals from Ike Opara and Gerso to prevail 2-0 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 before eventually lifting the tournament title on Sept. 20.

Thursday marks the fifth year these rivals have met in the MLS Cup Playoffs, with Houston holding a 3-2-1 advantage in the overall postseason series.

The Dynamo triumphed in single-elimination conference championships in 2007 and 2011, then won 2-1 on aggregate in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Manager Peter Vermes’ men exacted revenge in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, claiming a 2-1 aggregate victory a fortnight prior to lifting the 2013 MLS Cup on home soil.

Both teams are seeking their first postseason win in four years, albeit under different circumstances.

Sporting KC has suffered three straight one-and-done road losses in the Knockout Round and will hope its seventh consecutive playoff appearance exorcises the demons of recent heartbreaks against the New York Red Bulls (2014), Portland Timbers (2015) and Seattle Sounders FC (2016).

The Dynamo, meanwhile, are poised for their first playoff match since falling 2-1 in the decisive second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship at Children’s Mercy Park on Nov. 23, 2013.

While form can prove fickle in an unpredictable, parity-stricken competition such as the MLS Cup Playoffs, Houston enters Thursday on an undeniable uptick. Head coach Wilmer Cabrera’s side is unbeaten in six matches – the longest active streak among the six Western Conference playoff contenders – including a 3-0 hammering of the Chicago Fire in Sunday’s regular-season finale.

On the opposite sideline, Sporting KC has gone 1-3-2 since hoisting the U.S. Open Cup title and took a 2-1 loss at Real Salt Lake in Sunday’s curtain-closer.

The winner of Thursday’s matchup – which will go to 30 minutes of extra time if tied after regulation and penalty kicks if still deadlocked-will advance to face the Portland Timbers or Seattle Sounders FC in the two-legged Western Conference Semifinals.

The other Western Conference Knockout Round fixture pits No. 3 Vancouver Whitecaps FC against No. 6 San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday. The top-seeded Timbers will face the lowest-seeded Western Conference team that advances, while No. 2 Seattle will be matched against the highest-seeded Western Conference team that advances.

Anchored by center backs Matt Besler and Ike Opara, Sporting KC has pieced together one of the best defensive regular seasons in league history.

The club conceded just 29 goals through 34 matches, posting a 0.85 goals against average that ranks fifth-lowest on the all-time MLS charts. Right back Graham Zusi has contributed valuably along the backline while also serving as an attacking weapon: his eight MLS assists lead the team and his 59 chances created were the most ever by an MLS defender in a single regular season.

A balanced Sporting KC attack saw Gerso earn Sporting KC Golden Boot honors with 10 goals in all competitions, with Diego Rubio adding seven and Latif Blessing and Daniel Salloi tallying six each. Vermes’ side will hope to bring a clinical scoring touch to Houston, as Sporting KC’s 10 road goals were the second-fewest in MLS this year.

No Western Conference team logged a better home record this season than Houston’s 12-1-4 mark at BBVA Compass Stadium.

The proverbial fortress has seen Cabrera’s men outscore opponents 43-17, thanks in large part to the potent attacking corps. Houston was the only club in 2017 to have three players score 10 or more league goals, as Erick “Cubo” Torres led the way with 14 goals followed by 10 each from Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas.

In-form goalkeeper Tyler Deric and MLS clearances leader Adolfo Machado lead a defense that has posted two straight shutouts heading into the playoffs.

MLS Goalkeeper of the Year contender Tim Melia remains sidelined with a hamstring injury, opening the door for Sporting KC’s Andrew Dykstra to make his fourth straight start. On the opposite sideline, veteran Dynamo defender A.J. DeLaGarza will miss out after sustaining a torn ACL in Sunday’s win over Chicago.

– Story from Sporting KC

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