KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The Houston Dynamo had just allowed Sporting Kansas City's Seth Sinovic to sneak behind their defense for the first goal of the night when coach Dominic Kinnear turned to assistant Tim Hanley and whispered, "We're in trouble."
It wound up being an unnecessarily ominous assessment.
The Dynamo's big back line clamped down the rest of the way Wednesday night, assuring a 1-0 loss and allowing them to advance to the Eastern Conference finals with a 2-1 aggregate result.
"It was an exhausting night for us," Kinnear said. "We didn't play particularly well and they did. Luckily for us, one goal is all they could get, and we're moving on to the next round."
Houston, which defeated Sporting KC last year to reach the MLS Cup finals, will face the D.C. United or New York Red Bulls in another two-game, aggregate-goal series scheduled to begin Sunday.
D.C. United and the Red Bulls played to a 1-1 draw in their opening game, but the second game Wednesday night was postponed thanks to the nor'easter dropping snow in the New York area. They'll try again Thursday night with the opening leg of the conference finals pushed back a day as well.
"The one thing that really impresses me is that getting to the conference finals was going to be a tough road," Kinnear said. "We showed a lot of heart tonight."
Sinovic sent a jolt through a crowd of 20,894, the second-largest ever to see an MLS game at Livestrong Sporting Park, when his diving header off a cross from Graham Zusi found the back of a wide open net to give Sporting KC the lead in the 64th minute Wednesday night.
Kei Kamara set the play up with an impressive individual run into the box.
The regular-season conference champions spent the next 30 minutes desperately trying to find the second goal that would force overtime -- all in vain, as it turned out it.
"It's part of the game, you know? We didn't set ourselves up after the first game, but we came in here ready to play," Kamara said. "We didn't get the goals that we needed to count."
The outcome was never assured for Houston until 4 minutes of stoppage time expired, and even then there was no real celebration. Just a bunch of exhausted guys shaking hands.
The pressure of spending 90 minutes on their heels had sapped them.
"We knew when we got the fifth spot we were going to have to earn it," Kinnear said. "We had to roll up our sleeves, put our tin hat on and defend for our life."
The Dynamo squeaked into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference but beat fourth-seeded Chicago in the knockout round, and then continued its dominance of Sporting KC with a 2-0 win in the first match of the two-leg conference semifinals.
The result allowed Houston to adhere to Kinnear's style by sinking back on defense and muddying up the middle of the field, forcing Sporting KC to swing passes wide on the wing and then force looping shots into the penalty area, where its size could knock them away.
That's what happened in the eighth minute, when C.J. Sapong drew a foul and Zusi uncorked a free kick from 25 yards that Kamara managed to get his head on but send just wide of the goal.
It happened again in the 26th minute, when Kamara's shot was deflected away, and early in the second half, when Zusi's sent a free kick arcing into the box that was knocked back out.
Sporting KC nearly had the series equalizer in the 73rd minute, when Sapong beat a Houston defender to a pass from Kamara, and the forward chipped the ball just over goalkeeper Tally Hall, who was late in trying to secure it in front of the next. The ball just cleared the crossbar.
Matt Besler another chance in the 85th minute, when his right-footed shot was high and wide.
Houston held on from there to end a successful season for Sporting KC.
The recently rebranded club, playing in its still-new state-of-the-art stadium, captured Kansas City's imagination this year. Not only did it repeat as regular-season conference champions for the first time in club history, it also won the U.S. Open Cup for only the second time.
"We're going to look at it and say there were some very good things," Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said, "but we fell short of all our goals."