MLS CUP CLASH

Sporting KC defender Ike Opara, back, and Houston midfielder Servando Carrasco (17) during the second half of an MLS playoff soccer match in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013.
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City and its Western Conference counterpart, Real Salt Lake, will play in 2013 MLS Cup, the league’s championship game, at Sporting Park in Kansas City on Saturday, Dec. 7, 4:00 p.m. on ESPN. Sporting overcame a Houston team that had knocked it out of the playoffs the past two seasons, with a 2-1 victory, while Real Salt Lake manhandled a Portland Timbers team it defeated three times during the year to come away with a 1-0 win (5-2 on aggregate) the second leg of the Conference final.

When Boniek Garcia put Houston Dynamo ahead in the third minute of play last Saturday in the second leg of the Conference series, it seemed like déjà vu, but not for long. Two unlikely heroes stepped up and broke the hex to put Sporting Kansas City on its way to its first MLS Cup appearance since 2004.

Regular starter C.J Sapong capitalized on a Houston mistake and equalized in the 12th minute to pull host Sporting Kansas City level, then he turned the show over to Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer. Both were fringe players throughout the season: Feilhaber, once thought of as the midfield savior for the U.S. after the departure of former national player Claudio Reyna, was recently traded from the New England Revolution and played in only one of Sporting’s last four games of the season. Second-year forward Dwyer failed to earn enough playing time early in the year and was loaned to Orlando City in the USL. He returned later in the season to earn playing time and a starting position.

The pair, along with hard-working U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi, made the difference for Sporting. Zusi ran all day and was always a threat to Houston, while Dwyer was bullish on Houston’s goal in his relentless forays. Feilhaber seemed to find his old form as he threaded passes that put his players in behind the Dynamo defense. One such pass made the difference as Feilhaber dribbled down the middle of the Houston defense and chipped the ball that split two Dynamo defenders for Dwyer to run onto and beat a defender and the goalkeeper for the winning goal in the 63rd minute.

“I said to (Feilhaber) that that was why we brought him here,” Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes said. “His ability to open up a defense is exactly what we were looking for. It was a great ball and at the same time it was very intuitive for Dom to be able to read the situation and have the calmness to just slip it in. It was a big-time final pass, but at the same time the finish was excellent.” So much for the two-year hex!

In Portland on Sunday night at Jeld Wen Stadium, head Coach Kaleb Porter, a candidate for the MLS Coach of the Year, said after the Timbers loss that he felt like the “luckiest coach in the league.” Porter was referring to the great strides that his third-year team made in 2013 after two previously bad years. Porter continued, “This team has set a standard in a short amount of time, and it’s only the beginning,” said the coach. “We’re going to be back, there’s no doubt about it. We’re not getting worse, we’re getting better. We’re going to keep doing what we did this year, hopefully better. And hopefully we’re back here next year, only we’re the ones dancing on the field going to the MLS Cup because again our goal is to raise trophies.”

The Timbers dug a hole for themselves when they lost at Real Salt Lake, 4-2, in the first leg of the Conference final. In the second outing, the Timbers were two goals behind and had a mountain to climb considering its 0-3 record against RSL. Both teams played hard and played well, but it was a Robbie Findlay goal in the 26th minute that put RSL into MLS Cup with its fourth win of the season against a very good Timbers squad.

Portland finished second in the Conference to RSL and was in the running for the Supporter’s Shield Trophy as it sported one of the best records in the league; this was a team that fired its coach, John Spencer, mid-way through the 2012 season and was coached by its general manager the rest of the way. Porter, a former college coach at University of Akron, took over leadership of the club and in less then a year of player acquisitions through trades, the college draft and other dealings put together a team that reached the Conference final, just a game away from MLS Cup.

So, when losing Coach Porter says he feels lucky, it is because he has created the right environment for future success. Portland has one of the largest fan bases in the league and arguably the most passionate fans, which includes the Timbers Army, a chanting group that occupies a special section in the stadium on game-day.

“It’s a winning culture, no doubt about it,” said Portland Captain Will Johnson after the loss to the grateful chants of the Timbers Army. “That’s one of the things we talked about afterwards, of being proud of we’re no longer the Portland Timbers that everyone beats up on. We’re starting to become an elite team in this league, and if we do it consistently we’ll find ourselves in championship games year after year.”

MEXICO PLAYS

Mexico, the last CONCACAF nation to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, will get its World Cup preparations in gear with an international friendly against South Korea on January 29 at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio, Texas. Mexico is expected to soon name Miguel Herrera as its permanent coach. Herrera, was called in on loan from Club America to coach the team in its last three qualifiers after four previous coaches failed…USA women’s Under-20 national team will have its camp in mid-December in Florida in preparation for the CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championships in the Cayman Islands, January 9-19, 2014. The USA is in Group A with Costa Rica, Jamaica and Guatemala. Group B consists of the host Cayman Islands, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico….meanwhile the USA senior women’s team will kick off the 2014 season with a friendly versus Canada on January 31, at Toyota Park in Frisco, TX.

Sporting KC forward Dom Dwyer celebrates his goal during the second half of an MLS playoff soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. Sporting KC defeated Houston Dynamo 2-1.
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

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