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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.

Arsenal reportedly set for $69 million double Friday buy

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 14:  Lucas Perez of RC Deportivo la Coruna reacts during the La Liga match between Rayo Vallecano and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Estadio Teresa Rivero on September 14, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Arsene Wenger‘s much-maligned transfer business is about to take the “much” off the verb.

Lucas Perez of Deportiva de la Coruna is reportedly going to be joining Arsenal on Friday, and the Gunners are also close to finally landing Valencia center back Shkodran Mustafi.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

Perez, 27, broke out for a career-best 17 goals last season, and scored on debut last weekend. He’s set to cost $22.5 million, while Mustafi makes up the other $46.5 million.

The 12-times capped German center back stands 6-foot, and would bring stability to a Gunners unit which has (again) been beset by injuries.

From the BBC:

Spaniard Lucas, 27, scored 17 goals in 37 games last season and Arsenal will meet a 20m euro (£17.1m) buyout clause.

Germany international Mustafi, 24, is set to join for a fee in excess of £35m.

Is this, coupled with the Granit Xhaka buy, enough to help Wenger right the ship? Mustafi, especially, would be a key piece. Perez is a bit of a lesser-known quality.

MLS Weekend Preview: Desperation mounts as rivals meet in Oregon

Portland Timbers defender Vytas Andriuskevicius, second from right, trips up Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, right, in the second half of a MLS soccer match, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, in Seattle. Andriuskevicius was called for a foul on the play, and the Sounders' Clint Dempsey scored a goal on the resulting penalty kick. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Desperation is up-and-down the schedule this weekend in Major League Soccer, as the playoff race really heats up.

The calendar turns to September next week, and teams will end this weekend with a clear view of their runs into the season’s final Sunday: Oct. 23.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

The tumult that is an MLS season means only one team is more than two wins out of a playoff spot right now, and that’s Houston (7 points back of Western No. 6 Portland).

Here’s who is feeling the heat of their matches this weekend:

Portland and Seattle: The Cascadia Cup rivals tangle Sunday in Oregon, with the Timbers holding a one-point edge on the Sounders for the West’s final playoff spot. Seattle has played one fewer games than Portland, and a win on Sunday would be a double-whammy for PDX; The Timbers would be level on points with Seattle and Vancouver in the Cascadia Cup standings with just one match to go (compared to their opponents’ two).

Vancouver: The ‘Caps don’t have a Cup game this weekend, but will face an L.A. team which hasn’t lost at home. Vancouver is in real danger of moving more than one win behind in the fight for a playoff spot. If they lose to L.A. and both San Jose and Portland win, the Whitecaps will be five points back of a playoff spot. Of course, this being MLS, a win and help could see Vancouver in sixth when the smoke clears.

Columbus and New England: No one likes to comment on job status, but Revs’ boss Jay Heaps and his Columbus counterpart (Gregg Berhalter) have to be a bit concerned at this point. New England is a total mess, opening up a goalkeeping controversy, and is pinning its hopes on some Open Cup final karma. The Crew was supposed to contend for a title after last year’s final run, but is currently in the East’s cellar with just three home wins from 13 matches.

Schedule

Friday
Colorado at Real Salt Lake — 8 p.m. EDT

Saturday
Chicago at DC United — 7 p.m. EDT
Sporting KC at Philadelphia — 7 p.m. EDT
San Jose at Columbus — 7:30 p.m. EDT
Montreal at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. EDT
FC Dallas at Houston — 9 p.m. EDT
Vancouver at LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. EDT

Sunday
New England at New York Red Bulls — 2:30 p.m. EDT
Seattle at Portland — 5 p.m. EDT
New York City at Orlando City — 7 p.m. EDT

Season starts Friday, so here is your Bundesliga 2016-17 primer

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 30:  Julian Green #37 of FC Bayern Munich smiles after scoring the last of his three goals against FC Internazionale during an International Champions Cup match at Bank of America Stadium on July 30, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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The Bundesliga opens another season Friday, and the first question on many minds is simple: Will anyone come close to dethroning Bayern Munich?

Bayern has four-straight Bundesliga titles, giving them a league-best 26 German Championships. And USMNT fans have legit reason to be excited about Julian Green’s season with the Bavarians, as his new coach is interested in seeing the 21-year-old at work.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

But this could be the year for the last team with a different name to win a title, as at least one team has added a load of proven strength.

Let’s dig into Bundesliga 2016-17:

Who went down? Stuttgart and Hannover 96

Only two? Eintracht Frankfurt finished 16th, but beat Nurnberg in the pro/rel playoff.

Who came up? RB Leipzig, Augsburg

New faces to know: Renato Sanches (Bayern Munich), Marc Bartra (Borussia Dortmund), Ousmane Dembele (Borussia Dortmund), Aleksandar Dragovic (Bayer Leverkusen), Nabil Bentaleb (Schalke), Baba Rahman (Schalke), Coke (Schalke), Breel Embolo (Schalke), Benjamin Stambouli (Schalke), Jhon Cordoba (Mainz), Allan (Hertha BSC), Jeffrey Bruma (Wolfsburg), Borja Mayoral (Wolfsburg), Alen Halilovic (Hamburg), Florent Hadergjonaj (Ingolstadt), Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg), Takashi Usami (Augsburg), Lamine Sane (Werder Bremen), Alexander Milosevic (Darmstadt), Victor Obinna (Darmstadt), Guillermo Varela (Eintracht Frankfurt), Jesus Vallejo (Eintracht Frankfurt), Michael Hector (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Mascarell (Eintracht Frankfurt), Timo Werner (RB Leipzig).

Gone from the league: Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United), Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Southampton), Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Ragnar Klavan (Liverpool), Alex Manninger (Liverpool), Dantre (Nice), Lorius Karius (Liverpool), Younes Belhanda (Dynamo Kyiv), Leroy Sane (Manchester City), Joel Matip (Liverpool), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Havard Nordtveit (West Ham), Omar Damari (New York Red Bulls), Caleb Stanko (FC Vaduz), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew), Carlos Zambrano (Rubin Kazan), Russell Canouse (VfL Bochum), Anthony Ujag (Liaoning Whowin), Gerard Tremmel (Swansea City), Papy Djilobodji (Chelsea), David Yelldell (Sonnenhof Großaspach e.V.)

Old league faces, new league places: Mario Gotze (Borussia Dortmund), Andre Schurrle (Borussia Dortmund), Kevin Volland (Bayer Leverkusen), Christoph Kramer (Gladbach), Naldo (Schalke), Jakub Blaszczykowski (Wolfsburg), Mario Gomez (Wolfsburg), Marco Hoger (Koln), Max Kruse (Werder Bremen), Lukas Rupp (Hoffenheim), Kevin Vogt (Hoffenheim), Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim),



Americans Abroad: Bobby Wood (Hamburg), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen), Fabian Johnson (Monchengladbach), Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Terrence Boyd (RB Leipzig), Ken Gipson? (RB Leipzig).

We’re at the point where the United States could put together a halfway decent XI from Bundesliga sides if a goalkeeper and second center back hit the scene.

Yeah, but which ones will factor? Every name on that list should have an opportunity to make an impact this season, not just club stars like Johnson, Brooks, and Morales.

Who scores the most goals between Wood, Pulisic, Johannsson, Green, and Boyd? We’ll let you answer that in the comments.

Why the question mark next to Gipson? The 20-year-old right back has U.S. citizenship, but is a German.

Why will Bayern win? The giants also have a new coach in Carlo Ancelotti, and minimal roster tumult. As usual, though, they’ve added superstars to replace superstars. Gone are Mario Gotze and Mehdi Benatia, and arriving are Mats Hummels and Renato Sanches. Bayern won the league by 10 points last season, and it’s hard to imagine someone closing that big of a gap.

Make me a case they don’t: That’s easy. Borussia Dortmund. Thomas Tuchel’s bunch have brought back Gotze from Bayern, added Andre Schurrle from Wolfsburg, Marc Bartra from Barcelona and Rennes dynamo Ousmane Dembele. After a horrific start to last season, BVB played as well as anyone in the second half. Maybe they do it for a whole season.

Who else could thrive? Schalke has made some significant additions in the wake of selling Leroy Sane to Manchester City, and Olympic hero Max Meyer could be primed to take the next step in his career. Wolfsburg has added some big names like Borja Mayoral, Jakub Blaszczykowski, and Jeffrey Bruma, and Borussia Monchengladbach could be good again if it can deal with the loss of Granit Xhaka to Arsenal. Don’t sleep on Bayer, either.

Report: French outfit Nice interested in adding Liverpool’s Balotelli

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 14:  Mario Balotelli of AC Milan looks on during the Serie A match between AC Milan and AS Roma at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 14, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
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Mario Balotelli could soon have a new home, according to the BBC’s Phil McNulty.

The mercurial Italian striker, 26, has one league goal in each of his last two seasons (spent between Liverpool and AC Milan).

Jurgen Klopp is ready for Balotelli to find a home away from Anfield and McNulty says that place could be OGC Nice, where he’d join newly-signed ex-Bayern man Dante. Balotelli also had talks with Sion in Switzerland, according to the report.

The striker was a blazing hot commodity after scoring 17 goals for Manchester City in 2011-12, and again after netting 18 for AC Milan in 2013-14.

Balotelli has 13 goals in 33 caps for Italy, but hasn’t appeared for the national team since 2014.