MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at Chicago Fire

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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.

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.

New Zealand 0-4 Portugal: Ronaldo, Portugal win Group A

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New Zealand gave the 2017 Confederations Cup all they had, but they go home empty-handed as Portugal won the Group A finale 3-0 to advance to the knockout round.

Portugal held much of the possession as expected, but they found little at the end early on. The first true chance fell to Cristiano Ronaldo in the 24th minute, who latched onto a Ricardo Quaresma cross from wide right and produced a powerful header, but it was poorly directed straight to New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic for the easy save.

[ RECAP: Mexico eliminates Russia with 2-1 comeback ]

Ronaldo had another headed chance minutes later, but he rocketed the attempt back off the post. Portugal would eventually find the opener just past the half-hour mark via the penalty spot. Danilo was clearly shoved by a pair of defenders on a set-piece, and Ronaldo easily dispatched the spot-kick for a 1-0 lead.

The favorites would double their lead just a few minutes later as Eliseu on the overlap came down the left flank and cut horizontally into the box. He fed a charging Bernardo Silva, and the in-demand Monaco attacker jumped to meet it and poked home. Silva was unable to celebrate after turning his ankle heavily on the landing, but he would come back onto the field.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

Portugal finished things off with 10 minutes to go in the game as Andre Silva burst through the midfielder, shucked his defender, and fired past Marinovic to seal the game for good. Nani added a fourth The win means Portugal finishes level on points with Mexico at the top of Group A, winning the group on goal differential thanks to Silva’s final goal.

Mexico 2-1 Russia: Comeback seals semifinal place

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Mexico again produced a poor first half, but were saved in the final 45 minutes as Juan Carlos Osorio led the CONCACAF squad to the semifinals of the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Right off the bat, there was a controversial moment. Just five minutes into the game, Yuri Zhirkov burst into the Mexico box and went to ground under a challenge from Hector Moreno. The referee waved play on, but it appeared on replay that Moreno tripped Zhirkov. Nevertheless, no call was made and no word came from the video assistant referee.

[ RECAP: Portugal eases by New Zealand 4-0 ]

The hosts had another huge penalty shout, but the referee again waved play on as Fedor Smolov was sent flying to ground as Nestor Araujo contacted his leg from behind in the 17th minute. After about a minute of play, the VAR called for a review, but even after a look at the monitor, the referee decided there was not obvious reason to reverse the call.

With Russia applying all the pressure, they would find the breakthrough in the 25th minute. A pair of fantastic saves from Memo Ochoa went for naught as Alexandr Erokhin whiffed, but he was able to find Aleksandr Samedov who struck low past Ochoa for the opener.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The lead wouldn’t last long. Mexico didn’t exactly seem sparked by the deficit, but they would draw back level against the run of play just past the half-hour mark. It appeared that Nestor Araujo’s looping header was meant to set up a teammate at the far post, but it ended up chipping Igor Akinfeev and tucking inside the woodwork for the equalizer.

After halftime, Mexico scored completely out of nowhere. A bombed clearance out of the back by Hector Herrera seemed an easy collect for Akinfeev, but as the ball bounced high up into the air, Hirving Lozano charged it down and headed the ball under feeble pressure from the Russian goalkeeper. The ball bounced unchallenged into the net, and Mexico took a shock 2-1 lead.

Mexico appeared to have a third to pad the lead, but VAR took 34 seconds to correctly reverse the call as replay spotted goalscorer Hector Moreno in an offside position on the delivery. Russia was doomed to defeat when Zhirkov was given a second yellow card for a clear elbow to the face of Miguel Layun. Somehow, the hosts still had one big chance in the 72nd minute despite the disadvantage, but Igor Smolinkov somehow missed the net on what should have been a tap-in.

The win for Mexico sees them into the knockout stage, but they fail to win the group, finishing level with Portugal on 7 points but coming up short on goal differential by one. Mexico will be without Andres Guardado in the semifinals, as he was shown his second yellow card of the tournament in the first half.

Report: Arsenal owner calls Bellerin to state intentions

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According to a report by Spanish radio station Cadena SER, Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke has personally called defender Hector Bellerin to tell the Spaniard he would not be sold.

The 22-year-old experienced a serious regression at the Emirates last season, and with media speculation surrounding his potential departure, Kroenke wanted to make sure his intentions were clear. Reports had linked Bellerin with a return to his home country, most notably to Barcelona.

With Bellerin under contract through 2021 having just signed his extension last summer, it’s clear the club has decided who they believe keeping should be a priority.

The defender lost his place briefly down the stretch run last season, finding himself on the bench in seven of the club’s final 17 Premier League matches. Despite that, Arsenal still clearly values Bellerin’s talent and durability and hope to ward Barcelona’s interest off. Bellerin didn’t help cool speculation when he bought a house in Barcelona just a short time ago.

Reports say that Arsenal would not take any less than $57 million for their right-back.