Brad Davis 2

MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at Chicago Fire


There are reasons to feel good and bad about both of these teams, who launch Major League Soccer’s 17th playoff season tonight.

Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, Toyota Park, ESPN2

(Official league match preview is here)

(MORE: MLS playoff primer and schedule)

On Chicago:

  • It’s tough to feel great about a (slightly slumping?) team with just one win it its last five matches going into the playoffs. That one victory was a dandy, a very professionally managed 2-0 win over the Red Bulls outside New York. Veteran Dutch target striker Sherjill MacDonald had both goals for the Fire, who were at their counter-attacking best in that one.
  • Who runs that counter attack for Frank Klopas’ team? That’s Chris Rolfe, and as he goes, so goes the Fire. Just like in his first go-round at Toyota Park a few years back, Rolfe is the very definition of a streaky attacker. When he was so confident and on top of things back in September, the Fire was 4-1 (its only loss coming to Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City).
  • Past Rolfe, Klopas’ team is full of good roll payers, but a little short on difference-makers in the attack. Guys like MacDonald, Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Oduro, Alex and others have their moments, but they aren’t reliable game-changers.
  • So the boys in the back will be needed to lock it down, and perhaps just a little better than they did throughout all of 2012. Rookie of the Year favorite Austin Berry is, well, a rookie, and he gets nipped on positioning here and there. Outside back Jalil Anibaba is another good, young defender – but this is just his second season. And goalkeeper Sean Johnson can turn a game either way, usually with big stops but occasionally with the real howler.
  • Chicago certainly has this on its side: no one on the field Wednesday has been in more big games that German veteran center back Arne Friedrich.

(MORE: Austin Berry is PST’s pick for Rookie of the Year)

(MORE: Talking tactics and Chris Rolfe)

On Houston:

  • Dominic Kinnear’s team has been just a little better than dreadful away from home this year, tied with Vancouver for the fewest road wins (3) and a fairly hideous -12 goal difference.
  • After an impressive early summer success the Dynamo is just 3-3-4 down the stretch. And this teetering between formations (4-4-2 and 4-3-3) shows the Dynamo still hasn’t exactly found itself. Clearly, this is not the best time to be “finding yourself.”
  • On the other hand, Houston knows how to get it done on the road in the playoffs. Last year, they fought their way into MLS Cup 2011 largely on the strength of wins at Philadelphia and Kansas City. From there, they had to meet Los Angeles at the Galaxy’s Home Depot Center, and nearly pulled out another upset. Houston lost that one, 1-0, without top man Brad Davis (pictured).
  • Houston fans won’t soon forget another important playoff match in Los Angeles, back in November of 2010. Kinnear’s team had Los Angeles absolutely on the ropes before a power failure – of all things, right? – served as a sort of re-set for Los Angeles, which went on to win in overtime.
  • The Dynamo attack is all about Oscar Boniek Garcia on the right and Davis on the left. Will Bruin and Brian Ching, the veteran warrior who has taken on a second-half sub role this year, depend on service from the wings. And Davis, of course, is one of the league’s premier dead ball strikers.
  • The Dynamo will understand that preventing Rolfe from getting the ball in good spots is critical to stopping Chicago’s attack before it gets started. That will be up to defensive midfield screener Adam Moffat or Ricardo Clark (or both, depending upon how Kinnear shapes his team for this one.)
  • If there’s a gap in the back, it’s at right back, where rookie Kofi Sarkodie has shown his talent at times, but also some immaturity in some moments. Watch for Nyarko’s attempts to exploit that.

(MORE: Considering Houston’s playoff experience)

Bottom line:

Don’t look for a lot of goals.

Even at home, Chicago doesn’t always commit tremendous numbers forward. Anibaba on the right is a little young and will likely lean toward caution in this one, generally choosing to “stay home.” Gonzalo Segares on the left is 30 now and not quite the spry presence we used to know around Bridgeview.

On the other side, Jermaine Taylor and Bobby Boswell haven’t gotten much press this year, but they remain a solid central defensive duo. Houston likes to move the ball out of the back quickly and safely, minimizing chances for back-line booboos.

So one mistake will probably decide it in a 1-0 or 2-0 contest.

FYI: It will be cool to cold and probably a little windy – about what you would expect for an Illinois night in late October.

LIVE — AT THE HALF: Shield for FCD; SEA, SKC, RSL in; POR out

David Villa, New York City FC (Photo credit: New York City FC / Facebook)
Photo credit: New York City FC / Facebook
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We’re through 45 minutes of Decision Day, and the goals have been flying in all over MLS already.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS scoreboard for Decision Day updates ]

The Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake traded goals inside the first five minutes in the Emerald City, and the Sounders reclaimed the lead just after the half-hour mark. They’re now fourth place in the Western Conference, clinging onto the home game in the knockout round that comes with it. Sporting Kansas City are 1-0 up on the San Jose Earthquakes, which has them fifth at this very moment. The defending champion Portland Timbers are 2-0 down in Vancouver, and are 45 minutes from missing out on the playoffs altogether.

FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy are scoreless in Southern California, and the Colorado Rapids are 1-0 down to the Houston Dynamo, which is more than enough for FCD to clinch the Supporters’ Shield.

In the Eastern Conference, the New York Red Bulls are 1-0 up on the Philadelphia Union, and 45 minutes from clinching home-field advantage through the conference finals. Toronto FC are tie 1-1 with the last-place Chicago Fire, and will finish third if that result holds.

Halftime scores

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia Union 0-1 New York Red Bulls
New York City FC 1-0 Columbus Crew SC
Toronto FC 1-1 Chicago Fire
Orlando City SC 2-1 D.C. United
New England Revolution 1-0 Montreal Impact

Western Conference

LA Galaxy 0-0 FC Dallas
Colorado Rapids 0-1 Houston Dynamo
Seattle Sounders 2-1 Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City 1-0 San Jose Earthquakes
Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 Portland Timbers

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — All the Decision Day scenarios ]

For a full list of scenarios in the East, the West — to clinch berths and seeding implications — as well as the Shield race, hit this link and this link. Hit the link toward the top of this post, or right here, to keep up with all the action across the league over the final 45 minutes of the season. And, of course, check back on PST for full coverage of the afternoon and the setting of the stage for the playoffs, which begin Wednesday night with the knockout round.

The 2 Robbies Podcast: Chelsea dominate United, City settle for a point

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Robbie Mustoe & Robbie Earle discuss Chelsea’s 4-0 victory over Manchester United. After leading the Blues to three Premier League titles over the course of two stints at Chelsea, it was a nightmare return to Stamford Bridge for Jose Mourinho who suffered his worst defeat as a manager in the Premier League. The gents talk about how both Chelsea and Manchester United’s title credentials have changed after their performances and wonder what did Jose Mourinho whisper into Antonio Conte‘s ear at the final whistle?

The 2 Robbies also reflect on another draw for Manchester City as they had to come from behind at the Etihad Stadium to rescue a point against Southampton thanks to a goal from 2nd-half sub Kelechi Iheanacho. It looked like City might drop all three points at first after John Stones’s bad back pass led to Nathan Redmond’s goal for the Saints. The chaps discuss the continual changing of systems and tactics from Pep Guardiola and whether or not he is making things too complicated for his squad as their winless streak increased to five matches.

Finally, the boys wrap up with a preview of some intriguing midweek matchups in the EFL Cup. Tuesday’s fixtures include Tottenham’s visit to Liverpool as Arsenal face Reading at the Emirates. Wednesday is Derby Day as Chelsea and West Ham square off for a London Derby and City and United meet at Old Trafford for a Manchester Derby.

Remember to follow Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe @The2RobbiesNBC on Twitter and subscribe to The 2 Robbies podcast on iTunes. Please rate and review the show after listening. The ratings and reviews increase our visibility and help new football fans discover the show.

FOLLOW LIVE: Two hours to decide it all on Decision Day

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against Colorado Rapids during the first half of the MLS soccer game in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. (Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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231 days after First Kick, the 2016 MLS regular season is a mere three hours from its conclusion. Decision Day — 10 games, all kicking off at 4 p.m. ET.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS scoreboard for Decision Day updates ]

Back on March 6, 20 teams dreamt of lifting MLS Cup in December. Nearly eight months later, eight playoff places have been clinched, with another four on the line on Sunday — one in the Eastern Conference, three in the Western Conference.

Also still up for grabs: the Supporters’ Shield. FC Dallas have the inside track on the regular-season “title” and home-field advantage for as long as they may compete in the postseason. Bradley Wright-Phillips (23 goals) and David Villa (22) are neck-and-neck for the Golden Boot, with BWP currently holding the tiebreaker (assists — 5 to 3) in the event of a tie.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — All the Decision Day scenarios ]

For a full list of scenarios in the East, the West — to clinch berths and seeding implications — as well as the Shield race, hit this link and this link. Hit the link toward the top of this post, or right here, to keep up with all the action across the league over a frantic two-hour period (for yours truly, mostly). And, of course, check back on PST for full coverage of the afternoon and the setting of the stage for the playoffs, which begin Wednesday night with the knockout round.

Full schedule of games — all kickoffs at 4 p.m. ET

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls
New York City FC vs. Columbus Crew SC
Toronto FC vs. Chicago Fire
Orlando City SC vs. D.C. United
New England Revolution vs. Montreal Impact

Western Conference

LA Galaxy vs. FC Dallas
Colorado Rapids vs. Houston Dynamo
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City vs. San Jose Earthquakes
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers

Antonio Conte is becoming what Jose Mourinho was

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LONDON – At the full time whistle Jose Mourinho pulled Antonio Conte close and didn’t let go.

It was not a loving embrace.

[ MORE: 3 things learned ]

With his team 4-0 up towards the end of the game, Conte turned to Chelsea’s fans and gestured for them to raise the decibel levels. Manchester United’s fans were the only supporters who could be heard inside a very happy, yet quiet, Stamford Bridge.

On his incredibly embarrassing return to the Bridge — first half goals from Pedro (after just 30 seconds) and Gary Cahill, plus clinchers from Eden Hazard and N'Golo Kante did the damage — Mourinho apparently took exception to Conte’s actions.

Speaking after the game United’s manager refused to reveal what he said to Conte but with TV cameras all over the world were fixed on him a the final whistle.

It was clear something along the lines of: “You don’t wind up the crowd at 4-0. You do it at 1-0. It’s humiliating” was said.

It was a far from magnanimous end to an utterly humiliating return to Stamford Bridge for Mourinho as he suffered his worst-ever defeat as a Premier League manager and United’s worst away defeat in the PL since 1999.

Asked in his post-game press conference about what was said, both Mourinho and Conte declined to comment.

“You know me. I speak to Conte. I don’t speak to you. You know me that I am not this kind of guy to come here and share with you things I don’t want to share,” Mourinho said. “It was with me and Antonio and stays with me and him. Unless he wants to share with you if he wants. That is Antonio’s problem.”

What is clear is that Mourinho’s problems are much worse than Conte’s.

Only once had a team he’s managed conceded four or more goals in a Premier League game and on his first visit back to west London since he was fired as Chelsea’s boss last December, Mourinho’s defense were all over the place as they couldn’t cope with Chelsea’s wide men set up in a 3-4-3 system. Conte’s side were well balanced and had learned from their early season defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal.

Chelsea’s Italian manager laughed a little when asked about Mourinho’s comments — something which will have likely incensed his opponent — then explained why he turned to Chelsea’s fans and gestured for them to sing loudly towards the end of the game.

“I think that the private conversation must remain private. Then if someone discover something, okay. For me a private conversation remains private,” Conte said, smiling. “I think that today it was right to call our fans in a moment I was listening to only the supporters of Manchester United after 4-0. I called the fans to do a great clap to the players after this type of performance. I think that the players after a 4-0 win, they deserved it. It is very normal.”

Did Conte regret his passion on the sidelines? His constant jumping around? His whipping the home fans at Stamford Bridge into a frenzy for the final moments of the game?

“Me? No. I think we live with emotion,” Conte said. “If we want to cut the emotion we can go home, stay at home and change my job.”

This was all about much more than Conte whipping up the crowd late on. Mourinho’s back was up. He was hurting and he lashed out.

Once upon a time he would be the man whipping up crowds and providing plenty of antics on the sidelines. Now he’s lost a large chunk of his sparkle. The 53-year-old is six years Conte’s senior and it shows.

Chants of “You’re not special anymore!” and “You’re getting sacked in the morning!” greeted him from some sections of Chelsea’s supporters as he returned to the club where he delivered three Premier League titles in five full seasons in charge over two spells. With United having just 14 points after nine PL games (the same record David Moyes had) Mourinho has been reduced to moaning and complaining while he watches on at others such as Jurgen Klopp and Conte succeeding.

His comments last Monday about Klopp’s Liverpool being the “last wonder of the world” in attack were telling. He is starting to look like he feels out of the loop, out of touch and some might even say yesterday’s news.

You could argue that Conte is what Mourinho was.

Sure, the Italian boss has never won the UEFA Champions League title and has only had success in Italy, but he is passionate, driven and lives and dies by his relationship with his players and the fans. Sat behind Chelsea’s bench on Sunday, or any gameday for that matter, it is exhausting to see Conte in action. Whether or not his constant gesticulation and shouting makes a difference remains to be seen but in stark contrast Mourinho stood on the sidelines with his hands in his pockets for most of the second half as he watched his team waved the white flag as Chelsea raced into a 4-0 lead.

Mourinho used to be the one running on the pitch and hugging his players at the final whistle and urging Chelsea’s supporters to create a cauldron of noise in the comfy surroundings of Stamford Bridge. Now, Conte is doing that.

Both managers have only been at their respective clubs since the summer but Conte is much further along in stamping his mark on his team.

And when it comes to Conte’s tactics, he’s been brave enough to change his system in recent weeks to great success.

Since Chelsea switched to a 3-4-3 formation, they’ve won all of their last three games, conceding zero goals. ProSoccerTalk asked Conte if the defensive improvement following the 3-0 shellacking at Arsenal, which made him livid, has been the most pleasing in recent weeks.

“After two defeats and conceding two or three goals in every game, it was important for us to change something and to find a new solution. I think this suit is very good for the team and our squad. Now we must continue,” Conte said. “I always thought that the system is not important. It is more important, the commitment to trust in the work and work very hard and also to follow the principles and my idea of football. That pleased me because when you see this in the game you go in your house and you are happy.”

Conte will go home happy on Sunday in west London. Mourinho often did. But not anymore.