Houston Dynamo at Sporting Kansas City: Playing Checkers in the East

Brian Ching celebrates as Calen Carr taps the ball past Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielson in route to a 2-1 win at BBVA Compass Stadium on 7/18/12. Houston hopes to steal a win on the road Friday.

Friday night the Houston Dynamo will meet Sporting Kansas City at Livestrong Park for their final regular season matchup in 2012. Not only will this be a tough game for Houston, it's a big game with high stakes. With Chicago's midweek victory over Toronto FC, the Dynamo now sit in an uncomfortable 4th position in the Eastern Conference. If Houston wants to keep pace and get one of the top three spots, picking up points against Sporting will be vital. Each and every game during the final stretch of the season we'll likely see Eastern Conference playoff contenders jumping over each other like a game of checkers.

August and the start of September have been good to Sporting, who are unbeaten in their last five games (4-0-1), and picked up a US Open Cup championship in that span. Their recent form has helped them regain control over the Eastern Conference, and now sit at the top with 50 points. Despite the San Jose Earthquakes' dominate season, Sporting sits only three points back from the Supporter's Shield race also.

Houston's hot streak which saw them shoot up the standings and power rankings is behind us and now the team has struggled to pick up wins in recent games over beatable Columbus and Toronto, and a streaking Chicago Fire. I'm hoping that our late penalty kick winner over Real Salt Lake will give the Dynamo push they need to get back on track. With the Fire's recent win, they're now one of the hottest teams in MLS and if the Dynamo don't keep pace in the next couple games, could find their season turn disastrous.

Last week, I broke down the Eastern Conference contenders and predicted Houston would finish in 2nd spot behind New York. It's a bold prediction considering the form Sporting has been in recently, but ultimately the scheduling factors in as I see Houston with several "winnable" games and SKC has a bit of a tougher challenge on hand.

As for Friday night's action on the pitch, several factors will come into play. While the most recent stretch has been more about a crowded schedule with six games in 19 days (including 3 countries), an illness going around the locker room has also limited Kinnear's selection in the last couple games. A large portion of the roster has felf the effects of the illness and have either missed games and/or practices. In addition, World Cup qualifiying has dominated the soccer world over the last week or so and Houston had four international players who suited up for their country on Tuesday. Three of the four are everyday starters, with Watson getting several starts this season.

Andre Hainault - full 90' in 2-0 loss to Panama
Jermaine Taylor - full 90' in 1-0 loss to United States
Je'Vaughn Watson - 75' in 1-0 loss to United States
Boniek Garcia - full 90' in 1-0 win over Cuba

I don't think we'll see any players miss due to sickness, but Kinnear's use of the aforementioned players is something to watch. We've seen how the Dynamo midfield looks with Boniek in, and we've seen what it looks like without him. Against an always dangerous SKC, we'll need his speed, creatively, and overall presence in the midfield, while Taylor and Hainault are needed to control the SKC forwards.

Newly acquired English midfielder Giles Barnes will be available for selection now that he has obtained his visa. I don't expect him to start, but there is a good possibility he could see his first action Friday.

As for Sporting Kansas City, they had three players called for international duty - Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, and former Dynamo striker Kei Kamara. All three are expected to be available to the team. Zusi and Kamara will be big keys for Sporting, with Zusi among the league leader in assits with 12 and Kamara sitting on 10 goals.

While the offensive battle will be fun to watch, the difference will come down to the two club's defense. Sporting's Jimmy Nielson and Houston's Tally Hall are tied with a league best 11 shutouts in 2012. Nielson has been one of the best keepers this year, posting a 0.89 GAA, while Hall is not far behind with a 1.19 GAA. This could very well turn out to be a battle of the goalkeepers. Hall will break the Dynamo record for shutouts with his next one, a record that Pat Onstad has held securely for some time.

This will be the third and final meeting between Houston and Sporting, with the Dynamo holding a 1-0-1 record. Both of their previous meetings were in July with the clubs playing out to a 0-0 draw at Livestrong Park and the Dynamo getting a 2-1 win in Houston.

With six games left and still seven clubs battling for five spots, the Dynamo know the importance of getting a result on the road Friday. A win could set them up for a big run towards the playoffs, and I have to imagine we'll see SKC in the playoffs again.

Here's all the other important info:

BROADCAST INFORMATION
TV
NBC Sports Network - 7:30 p.m. (U-Verse: SD=640 HD=1640; Comcast: SD=49 HD=649; DirecTV: 603; Dish Network: 151)

Radio

KPRC 950 - 7 p.m.
La Ranchera 850 - 7 p.m.

REFEREE
Baldomero Toledo. AR1 (bench): Ian Anderson; AR2 (opposite): Fabio Tovar; 4th: Jorge Luna Hernandez MLS Career: 141 games; FC/gm: 25.0; Y/gm: 3.5; R: 48; pens: 51

INJURY REPORT PRESENTED BY THE METHODIST HOSPITAL SYSTEM (As of Tuesday, September 11)
SPORTING KANSAS CITY – OUT: FW Teal Bunbury (L knee ACL tear); DF Cyprian Hedrick (L fibula fracture); DOUBTFUL: FW Bobby Convey (R hamstring strain); PROBABLE: FW Jacob Peterson (R shoulder sprain) ... HOUSTON DYNAMO – DOUBTFUL: MF Adam Moffat (R adductor strain)

INTERNATIONAL ABSENCES: none
SUSPENDED: HOU: Calen Carr (caution accumulation; through Sept. 15)
WARNINGS: SUSPENDED NEXT YELLOW CARD: KC: Roger Espinoza, Chance Myers SUSPENDED AFTER TWO YELLOW CARDS: KC: Julio Cesar, Jimmy Nielsen, Paulo Nagamura, Lawrence Olum, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi ... HOU: Corey Ashe, Bobby Boswell, Macoumba Kandji

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