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.

WATCH: USMNT’s Pulisic cues up ex-Man City teen for 1st goal

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Jadon Sancho made history for English players in Germany thanks to a little help from an American teenager.

Christian Pulisic dribbled free from a pack of would-be tacklers to cue up the ex-Manchester City player for a finish against Bayer Leverkusen in the 13th minute of a match at the Westfalenstadion on Saturday.

[ MORE: Klopp rips West Brom ]

Sancho just turned 18 on March 25, and becomes the youngest English goal scorer in Bundesliga history having entered the match with one assist in 415 Bundesliga minutes.

As for 19-year-old Pulisic, the USMNT prodigy has five goals and seven assists in 39 matches across all competitions this season.

Dele, Alexis trade 1st half goals in FA Cup semi (video)

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Paul Pogba made amends for an early marking error that led to a Spurs opener by setting up Alexis Sanchez’s equalizer as Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are tied at 1 after 45 minutes of their FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembley ]

Spurs went ahead through Dele, as Pogba lost Christian Eriksen as the Dane raced onto a long ball. Eriksen crossed to the back post for Dele’s sliding finish.

Pogba made amends in his preferred third of the pitch, stealing the ball from a Mousa Dembele and lofting an inch-perfect cross for Alexis to nod home. The headed finish was anything but easy, hit across the goal while falling to the pitch.

Sunderland relegated for second-straight season

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It’s one-and-done for Sunderland in the Championship, though not in the way expected by most  supporters of the Black Cats.

[ RECAP: WBA 2-2 Liverpool ]

Relegated from the Premier League under David Moyes‘ guidance last season, Sunderland lost Saturday to leave them six points back of safety with two to play.

But either Burton Albion or Bolton will get at least a point from a match against each other, meaning Sunderland would need at least seven when all is said and done.

  • Twenty-one clubs have been relegated since the start of the 2010-11 season.
  • Six have sunk as low as League One (including Sunderland)
  • Seven returned to the Premier League (including Wolves for 18-19)
  • Ten are currently in the Championship

It’s a message to all Premier League sides expecting favorite status in the Championship, including likely relegation side West Bromwich Albion.

Here’s how the most recent sides have fared since dropping out of the top flight.

Relegated sides this decade, and current status
*club still alive for 2018-19 promotion to Premier League
#club could be relegated from current league

Hull City (2016-17) — Championship
Middlesbrough (2016-17) — Championship*
Sunderland (2016-17) — Relegated to League One
Newcastle United (2015-16) — Returned to PL in one season
Norwich City (2015-16) — Championship
Aston Villa (2015-16) — Championship*
Hull City (2014-15) — Promoted at first chance, then relegated last season
Burnley (2014-15) — Promoted at first chance
Queens Park Rangers (2014-15) — Championship
Norwich City (2013-14) — Has since been promoted, relegated back to Championship
Fulham (2013-14) — Championship*
Cardiff City (2013-14) — Championship*
Wigan Athletic (2012-13) — promoted to Championship for 2018-19
Reading (2012-13) — Championship#
Queens Park Rangers (2012-13) — Since promoted, relegated back to Championship
Bolton (2011-12) — Championship#
Blackburn (2011-12) — League One*
Wolves (2011-12) — Promoted to Premier League this season
Birmingham City (2010-11) — Championship#
Blackpool (2010-11) — League One
West Ham United (2010-11) — Promoted at first chance, still PL

LIVE, FA Cup semifinal: Man United v Tottenham

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Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur clash in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Saturday (12:15 p.m. ET kick off) with both Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho aiming to keep alive their only remaining hope of winning a trophy this season.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembley ]

For Spurs, they are certainly used to playing at Wembley after calling it home all season long while their new stadium is completed. Yet Harry Kane and Co. know they will keep hearing about how they need to win a trophy to prove themselves as Spurs have gone 10 years without a piece of silverware.

Mourinho is the master of grinding out wins in these kind of situations but United were dominated by Spurs at Wembley back in January in the PL and were lucky to escape with just a 2-0 defeat.

[ MORE: Minute-by-minute on United v Spurs ]

Click on the links above to follow the action live, while we will have reaction and analysis live from Wembley right here on Pro Soccer Talk.