KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) - It's become a rite of autumn for Sporting Kansas City, one they'd just as soon end.
The MLS club seems to roll through the regular season, earns a solid seed for the playoffs, and then runs into Houston. And no matter what Sporting KC tries to do, or even where the game is played, the result is always the same: The Dynamo finds a way to advance.
"They seem to find a way this time of the year to be a very, very strong opponent, and one that goes deep into this championship," Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said.
The Dynamo has knocked Sporting KC out of the playoffs each of the past two seasons, both times on its own field. They also knocked the team then known as the Kansas City Wizards out of the playoffs in 2007, when they were in different conferences and met in Houston.
Sporting KC will try to end that streak of futility on Saturday night when they play the back end of their two-leg Eastern Conference semifinal at Sporting Park. The teams played to a scoreless draw two weeks ago in Houston, meaning the winner advances to the MLS Cup. Real Salt Lake has a 4-2 lead over Portland in the Western Conference semifinals.
"We started the season, our goal wasn't at the end of the season to beat the Houston Dynamo," said Sporting KC's Matt Besler. "Our goal was to make it to the MLS Cup, and it is just I think kind of a story line that we're matched up against Houston again."
As frustrating as the outcomes have been for Sporting KC, they've been downright perplexing for the Dynamo, who can't seem to figure out their success against their budding rivals.
"First off, I think we have a good team," Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear offered by way of an explanation. "Secondly, most of our success against them has come in the playoffs in some do-or-die situations, and we just happen to come out on the right side of it."
It's not just that the Dynamo have become the proverbial thorn in the side of Sporting KC, it's that the two-time MLS Cup champions have ruined some otherwise sterling seasons.
Two years ago, Sporting KC edged out Houston by two points to finish at the top of the table, and then routed the Colorado Rapids in the conference semifinals. But back then, it was a one-game semifinal - now they play two legs, and the winner advances on aggregate. The Dynamo scored twice in the second half to reach the MLS Cup, where it lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Then last year, Sporting KC won the U.S. Open Cup and again finished first in the East, while the Dynamo scraped into the playoffs by a single point as the final seed in its conference.
Houston started to pick up steam, though, just as it always does. It knocked off Chicago in the knockout round, and then won the opening leg against Sporting KC 2-0. When the teams returned to Kansas City for the second leg, the Dynamo simply had to take the air out of the ball.
Seth Sinovic's second-half goal for Sporting KC added some drama to the final few minutes, but the Dynamo managed to play keep-away long enough to secure the victory.
Houston went on to reach the MLS Cup again, and again lost to the Galaxy.
"Not too many times you play Kansas City and don't feel like we've been in a boxing match," Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall said. "We're similar teams. We stay organized, keep our shape, pass out of pressure well. If we can stay in a positive formation, and when we have the ball take care of it, I think we'll be able to hold our own."
Due to a quirk in the schedule because of an international window, the two teams will have had two weeks off since playing in Houston. That layoff, along with weather that is expected to be in the low 30s by game time, present two more obstacles that they'll have to overcome.
"We've gotten familiar with Houston over the last couple years. They know us, we know them. They know what we want to do, we know what they want to do," Besler said. We know it's going to be a big challenge, but I think our group of guys are ready to do it this year."