Sporting Kansas City had MLS' most miserly defense this season, giving up just 27 goals in 34 matches. And of those 27, not one came off an opponent's corner kick.
The challenge now, in the MLS Eastern Conference Semifinals, is to continue that stinginess against a Houston Dynamo side that thrives on set pieces. Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis has a league-best 26 set-piece assists since 2009, a league high — and 46 of his 96 career assists have come on corners.
But if Sporting hold to their season-long form in the two-leg semifinal, which begins Sunday in Houston (3:30 pm ET, NBC, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), manager Peter Vermes expects them to control of their own penalty area.
“The guys know how to battle. They understand what's coming their way,” Vermes said on Friday, during the team's weekly news conference. “We've got to make sure we continue to do well on our marking assignments, and we've also got to limit the number of set pieces we give. If we don't give them, they can't score them, right?”
The key to limiting those chances, according to left back Seth Sinovic, is to keep perimeter pressure on the Dynamo throughout the defensive third.
“We've got to be aggressive,” Sinovic said. “We've got to limit crosses as much as we can, because we know they're physical and big in the air. We don't want Brad Davis to get his opportunities to put the ball in the box.”
One big plus for Sporting is that their top four defenders — fullbacks Sinovic and Chance Myers and center backs Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin — have developed into a tight, cohesive unit and are all in top form for the playoffs. Their familiarity with each other, Vermes said, enables them to approach set pieces instinctively.
“I know what you can and can't do on set pieces,” he said, describing his defenders' mind-set. “Guys know where each other are going to be in the set pieces. Then, if they do something different, we can think and say, 'Oh, we've got to do that.' That's where the consistency becomes a real asset to us.”
Another asset: veteran defensive midfielder Julio Cesar, who is tasked not with matching up against a set-piece attacker but with going to where the action is.
“He's a heat-seeking missile,” Vermes said. “I give him a free role in a lot of situations. He goes and seeks the ball. He doesn't have to mark a guy. He goes and tries to win the ball. He's got the experience that he can really anticipate things, and that's why he has that role.”