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.

Man City sign Benjamin Mendy from Monaco for $68 million

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Manchester City continues to splash cash like it’s going out of fashion.

[ VIDEO: Man United beat Real Madrid

Left back Benjamin Mendy, 23, has arrived from AS Monaco for $68 million and he has linked up with his new team in Los Angeles as they continue their preseason tour of the U.S. with a game against Real Madrid.

If the reported fee for Mendy is correct, he is the most-expensive defender in history.

Pep Guardiola has now brought in five new players this summer with goalkeeper Ederson, right backs Kyle Walker and Danilo, playmaker Bernardo Silva and now Mendy costing over $267 million combined.

Here’s what the French international defender had to say after agreeing a five-year deal at City.

“I am absolutely delighted to be joining Manchester City,” Mendy said. “They are one of Europe’s leading clubs and in Pep Guardiola they have a manager committed to playing attacking football. I am sure that over the next few years we will be successful.”

City’s Director of Football, Txiki Begiristain, said Mendy was “undoubtedly one of the world’s best full-backs” and their “number one target in this position.”

Mendy has burst onto the scene at Monaco over the past 12 months, helping them to win the French title last season and also reach the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League.

The powerful left back makes surging runs forward and is as adept in attack as he is in defense. That’s obviously important in a Guardiola side as he expects his full backs to come inside, possess the ball and offer an attacking threat. Mendy ticks all the boxes.

City were knocked out of the UCL at the Round of 16 stage by Monaco with Mendy and fellow new signing Silva obviously impressing Guardiola, while Tiemoue Bakayoko has joined Chelsea for $55 million as a fine Monaco team has been broken up once again.

Monaco’s loss is the Premier League’s gain.

With Walker and Danilo at right back, plus Mendy at left back and Ederson in goal, City have strengthened their defense considerably this offseason. Ederson’s debut against Manchester United left plenty to be desired last week, but there’s no doubting City’s full back areas have been upgraded considerably.

Man United beat Real Madrid on PKs; injury update

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Manchester United beat Real Madrid 2-1 on penalty kicks after drawing with the reigning European champions 1-1 in normal time in Santa Clara, California.

[ VIDEO: Chelsea beat Arsenal in Beijing

Jose Mourinho’s men took the lead right on half time as Anthony Martial‘s fine run down the left flank ended with a perfect ball to Jesse Lingard who finished easily.

Real equalized through Casemiro’s penalty kick in the 69th minute which set up one of the worst penalty kick shootouts in memory with just three penalties scored from the 10 attempts in the International Champions Cup clash.

Take a look at the video highlights below as United continued their 100 percent record on their U.S. tour after wins over LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Manchester City and now Real.

Mourinho’s men will now play Barcelona in Washington D.C. on Wednesday on their way back to Manchester.


Mourinho also gave an update on Ander Herrera who came off injured just six minutes after coming on at Levi’s Stadium.

Herrera seemed to suffer a rib injury and Mourinho is hoping the latest knock (Juan Mata picked up an injury last week, with Matteo Darmian recovering from a slight injury, plus Ashley Young, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo still recovering) for one of his players isn’t serious.

“It must at least be very painful because for Ander to come off, it has to be very painful,” Mourinho said. “I want to wait and see what it is. I always say to the players that you don’t risk anything in friendly matches. If you feel something is coming, even if it is a little injury, get off because the result is not important. It was very painful, it was in front of the bench, it was a bad contact. Maybe it is his ribs but I don’t know.”

The Spanish midfielder was influential in United’s midfield last season, winning their Player of the Year award after several dominant displays in the engine room.

With Mourinho said to be on the hunt for a new holding midfielder, it’s easy to see why with only Michael Carrick and the versatile Daley Blind able to slot in if Herrera is out for a while.

Jamaica upsets Mexico to reach Gold Cup final, face USMNT

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For the second straight tournament, Jamaica are headed to the final of the Gold Cup after knocking off Mexico, the side which beat them in the 2015 final, in the 2017 semifinal on Sunday.

New York Red Bulls defender Kemar Lawrence scored the game’s only goal in the 88th minute, making the most of Andre Blake’s man-of-the-match goalkeeping performance which spanned the entirety of 90 minutes.

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

Blake put forth a stellar display of goalkeeping in the game’s opening 45 minutes, facing three shots on target and denying El Tri’s attackers on each and every occasion.

The pick(s) of the litter came in the 12th minute, when the Philadelphia Union ‘keeper pulled off a stunning double-save to deny Jesus Dueñas and Erick Torres. Dueñas fired first, aided by a wicked deflection, but Blake pulled off the reflexive kick-save, followed by Torres’ powerful strike through traffic seconds later.

15 minutes later, Torres earned himself a yellow card for what was undoubtedly, unquestionably a red-card, lunging “challenge” against Damion Lowe.

[ USA 2-0 CRC: Player ratings | Three things we learned ]

The second half consisted of much the same things as the first, as Blake continued his clinic in the 65th minute. Jesus Gallardo fired a free kick through the Raggae Boyz’ wall, a knuckling shot which Blake didn’t see until very late but managed the put two fists behind the ball and punch it anyway anyway.

Blake’s counterpart, Jesus Corona, joined the fun in the 78th minute. Lowe rose highest to get to Owayne Gordon’s free kick, heading it inside Corona’s right-hand post, but the Cruz Azul ‘keeper was quick to scramble across his goal and palm the ball away at full-stretch.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

Two minutes before full-time, Lawrence produced the game’s only piece of purge magic, a curling peach of a free kick from 24 yards out. Corona went one way, Lawrence went the other and Jamaica are headed to their second straight Gold Cup final.

Jamaica will take on the U.S. national team in Wednesday’s final, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

MLS: Rookie Ebobisse stars as Timbers win in Vancouver

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Portland Timbers, thanks to a standout performance in rookie striker Jeremy Ebobisse’s first MLS start, put to bed a six-game winless skid with a 2-1 win away to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday. The run of poor form stretched back to early June, and saw Caleb Porter’s side slip from contention for the Western Conference’s top spot, into the jumbled mess surrounding the playoff cut line (four teams separated by one point, either side of sixth place, coming into Sunday). Ebobisse scored the opening goal less than a quarter-hour into the game, and delivered the beautiful backheel assist to Sebastian Blanco to restore the Timbers’ lead four minutes into the second half, after watching it disappear just before halftime. The victory sees Portland leapfrog Vancouver to move into fourth place in the West, just four points off the top spot once again.

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

Three moments that mattered

14′ — Ebobisse touches home his first MLS goal — Sometimes you don’t really have to do much beyond simply existing in the right place. Ebobisse existed in the right place.

45′ — Jacobson heads home before halftime — Update: Portland still have issues defending set pieces.

49′ — Blanco slots past Ousted for 2-1 — No one really stepped up to deny Blanco’s marathon dribble, and Ebobisse did so much more than simply existing on this one.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jeremy Ebobisse

Goalscorers: Ebobisse (14′), Jacobson (45′), Blanco (49′)