Brad Davis 2

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.

Report: Steven Taylor to join Timbers, give PDX another nasty CB

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - MARCH 02:  Steven Taylor of Newcastle United during the warm up prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Newcastle United at the Britannia Stadium on March 2, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Nat Borchers’ achilles injury was a huge blow for Portland, but the Timbers are about to make up for it (perhaps and then some).

Longtime Newcastle United defender Steven Taylor is set to join ex-Premier League center back Liam Ridgwell in the Portland back line, according to Sky Sources.

[ MORE: Immobile finds new team ]

Taylor, 30, has made 265 appearances for Newcastle but did not have a place under new coach Rafa Benitez.

Any concerns about how he’ll fare in Major League Soccer have nothing to do with skill or intelligence, rather his injury history; Taylor has dealt with achilles, knee and head injuries in several of his 13 seasons with the Magpies.

It’s a huge pickup for Portland, though the Timbers need a lot of help to repeat the form that got them to the 2015 MLS Cup; Portland is 7th in the West and winless on the road.

Shy of injuries, Taylor’s skill set will instantly translate to MLS. Look for him to pitch in offensively as well, and be an instant leader. Most notably, Taylor turned down interest from around the PL when Newcastle was relegated in 2009, opting to stay alongside Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez in instantly returning NUFC to the top flight.

Immobile on the move again, switching to Lazio

MONTPELLIER, FRANCE - JUNE 29:  Ciro Immobile of Italy speaks with the media during a press conference at Casa Azzurri on June 29, 2016 in Montpellier, France.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
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The Ciro Immobile odyssey continues, though this move is within Serie A.

Since debuting for Juventus in 2009, Immobile has played for eight teams. He joins a ninth, Lazio, this season, after playing for Torino on loan from Sevilla last season.

[ MORE: Conte questions PL spending ]

Immobile, 26, earned a move away from Juve after scoring 28 goals for Serie B side Pescara in 2012.

He’s also played for Borussia Dortmund, Genoa, Siena, and Grossetto, and has 15 caps with one goal for the Italian national team.

Immobile appeared as a sub in two matches at EURO 2016, while Lazio finished eighth in Serie A last season.

Mascherano to stay at Barcelona through 2018-19 season

Javier Mascherano, FC Barcelona
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Argentina international Javier Mascherano has agreed to extend his contract with the Spanish champions until June 2019.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Club executive Albert Soler says “we have reached an agreement to improve (Mascherano’s) contract” without specifying the financial details.

The 32-year-old Mascherano plays as a central defender for Barcelona alongside fellow first-choice centerback Gerard Pique.

[ MORE: Zlatan reveals MLS offer ]

Since his arrival in 2010 from Liverpool, he has played in 282 games for Barcelona and helped it win 16 titles, including two Champions League crowns.

Also on Wednesday, Barcelona presented new midfielder Andre Gomes.

Transfer Rumors: Koulibaly to Chelsea, Stones to Man City, Arsenal chase CB

MILAN, ITALY - APRIL 16:  Mauro Icardi (L) of FC Internazionale Milano controls the ball against Kalidou Koulibaly of SSC Napoli during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and SSC Napoli at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on April 16, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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It has been reported by Sky Italy that Chelsea have made a $50 million bid for Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly.

The towering Senegalese defender has been liked with both Chelsea and Everton and Koulibaly’s agent has recently said that his client will leave the Serie A side this summer.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Koulibaly, 25, is refusing to sign a new deal with Napoli and with John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill as Chelsea’s three experienced options at center back — Kurt Zouma is still recovering from a serious knee injury and Matt Miazga is still developing at Stamford Bridge — new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte appears to favor strengthening his central defensive options.

Leaking goals was a big problem for the Blues last season as their title defense started woefully and they ended up finishing 10th in the Premier League table. Conte will shore things up and this reported bid for Koulibaly suggests he is ready to splash some more cash, despite questioning the sustainability of big money transfers less than 24 hours ago.


Manchester City is reportedly closing in on deals for four different players as Pep Guardiola looks to bring in plenty of new faces ahead of his first season in charge.

According to the BBC, Everton and City are discussing the transfer of John Stones for $65 million. The 22-year-old center back has long been linked with City and the England international has reportedly told Everton he wants to leave Goodison Park. Stones struggled for most of last season after breaking through in the previous two PL campaigns but he believes his fluid passing from the back game will flourish in Guardiola’s system.

[ MORE: Zlatan reveals MLS offer ]

Three attacking players are also linked with City as Leroy Sane returned to training with Schalke on Wednesday. The 20-year-old attacker is valued at over $52 million by Schalke and Sky Sports is reporting that the two clubs are in talks about the transfer fee.

Sky also says that City are close to tying up two deals for South American teenage forwards Gabriel Jesus and Marlos Moreno. Atletico Nacional in Colombia want around $11 million for Moreno, while Palmeiras value Jesus at over $26 million. The latter will be playing for Brazil at Rio 2016 Olympics and there is a slight snag with both of these deals as obtaining work permits could be an issue.


Arsene Wenger has made his transfer target clear: “We have to look for an option to get a bit more experience.”

He was, of course, talking about an experienced center back.

The Gunners could be without Laurent Koscielny for the start of the season as he continues to recover from a busy summer with the French national team, while Per Mertesacker has been ruled out with a long-term knee injury leaving Wenger with only Gabriel, Rob Holding and Calum Chambers (maybe even Nacho Monreal shifting in from left back) to choose from.

It will be interesting to see who Arsenal go for in their hunt for some cover. Maybe Martin Demichelis who is a free agent?