Drilling down on: Houston Dynamo 2, at Chicago Fire 1

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If you need one win on the road in Major League Soccer’s playoffs, you sure want Dominic Kinnear coaching your team.

For the second year in a row the Dynamo launched their post-season with a huge road win, this time as the No. 5 seed over No. 4 Chicago Fire at chilly Toyota Park.

Will Bruin had both goals, early on a corner kick and then straight-away after the break. Houston has to rest up quickly; up Sunday is a home match against Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City.

Man of the Match: Will Bruin struggled when Houston asked him to play as a lone striker in a 4-3-3, but he sure looks comfortable when the Dynamo reverts to its tried-and-true 4-4-2. The Dynamo’s “Dancing Bear” scored both of the visitors’ goals by doing what Chicago Fire players mostly could not: ruthlessly finishing his chances in those decisive moments.

Threesome of knowledge: Things We Learned

Hard to say what was more at fault, Chicago’s questionable tactics or Chicago’s curious absence of urgency. It’s the playoffs, fellows! (Maybe that weak crowd had the home town men bummed out.)

Patrick Nyarko on the right and Chris Rolfe up the middle looked up for the job for Chicago. Any others? Not so much. And the Fire’s 4-2-3-1 just didn’t provide enough support. Chicago’s defensive shape generally worked, but Fire manager Frank Klopas sacrificed a lot for the sake of it.  Specifically, holding midfielders Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause proved redundant elements, rarely straying far enough forward to link up with and provide an additional option for Rolfe.

The result was a muted attack. By the time Klopas brought on Brazilian midfielder Alex for Pause at halftime and rearranged the look, it was too late.

Kinnear also used two defensive-minded midfielders. The difference was in Ricardo Clark’s positioning; he played ahead of Adam Moffat in more of a diamond, although he dropped back into a “flat” midfield when Chicago controlled the ball. But getting Clark  forward in his positioning was the tactical checkmate. Well, having Corey Ashe rampaging up and down the left side helped a lot, too.

Don’t blame Fire veteran center back Arne Friedrich for anything that happened. He was everything you’d expect of a man with all that experience, always in the right spots and winning everything coming his way.

Friedrich even supplied the big pass out of the back that led to Chicago’s late goal.

Klopas will do himself a huge favor by convincing the German veteran to stay around for another season.

Neither team’s right back covered himself in glory out there. Chicago’s Jalil Anibaba will remember this one as a Halloween horror. It certainly wasn’t his fault that he slipped while marking Bruin on Houston’s opening goal. Whether that shook his confidence or whether this just wasn’t his night afterward, hard to say. But … ooof!

He struggled to deal with Houston’s left side, Brad Davis coming inside and Ashe overlapping along the outside. Chicago needed to provide more cover, either from Patrick Nyarko or from one of the defensive midfielders. When there wasn’t, Anibaba either had to foul or he struggled to prevent the crosses.

For Houston, young Kofi Sarkodi’s night was a similar orgy of the unfortunate, bad passes, poor-one-on-one defending and failure to step up with the line quickly enough. He did, at least, demonstrate the recovery speed a few times to get himself out of the ditch.

(MORE: Dominic Kinnear pushed the right buttons)

Packaged for take-away

  • Houston manager Dominic Kinnear is now 11-7-4 in the MLS playoffs.
  • Houston didn’t play a perfect game either, but the Chicago Fire’s finishing simply was not as brutally efficient.
  • Chicago’s Sean Johnson is one of the U.S. international up-and-comers, but he sure didn’t look like one early, flubbing an attempted punch and spilling a long-ranged shot into rebound-danger territory.
  • Meanwhile, Houston’s Tally Hall had six saves generally added credibility to the argument that he deserves the national team calls more than Johnson or D.C. United’s Bill Hamid. (Although Hall is a bit older at 27.)
  • We beat on referee Baldomero Toledo on this blog quite a bit. So, only fair to say that he got on top of things early Wednesday, mostly kept the cards in his pocket and managed the match pretty well. He did fall back into the old Toledo habit of not calling fouls late, but it was still one of his better matches.
  • That killer goal for Houston right after second half kickoff started on a Gonzalo Segares give-away.

Off to slow start, Morris, Seattle know “things can change quickly”

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Both Jordan Morris and the Seattle Sounders are off to a rough start in defense of their MLS Cup title last Fall, and the USMNT’s star striker admits to recalling last season’s wild turnaround as an inspiration.

“After the game last week we mentioned that we have a lot of the nucleus from last year and we all know that things can change quickly,” Morris said to ProSoccerTalk this week.

Seattle won just seven games before Matchday 22 last season, rebounding with a burst after coach Sigi Schmid was replaced by assistant Brian Schmetzer. The Sounders went 8-2-2 down the stretch en route to an MLS Cup win over Toronto FC.

While he hasn’t scored in five matches and only has two markers in 12 games, he feels success is coming for the 3W-5L-4T Sounders. Morris said the club knows the results aren’t there, but also that they are producing chances.

[ MORE: Monaco star’s Man City medical ]

“It’s been okay,” Morris said. “Definitely not the start I would’ve wanted. It’s not an excuse but we’ve hit a lot of posts and had other near misses.”

Seattle has a huge opportunity to flip the script on its season when Cascadia Cup rivals Portland visit on Saturday. The free-scoring Timbers are dangerous in attack, but have been opened up 20 times this season. Only two teams have conceded more goals than Portland (which has played the most matches in the league, it must be said).

And it may or may not surprise fans that Morris’ focus has been one of his strengths: the final product.

“I’m working on the final third, whether it’s shooting or finding the open guy,” Morris said. “It’s a big deal for us to finish our chances. Scoring or the final pass in that final third.”

Despite his relatively cold start, it would be surprising if Bruce Arena didn’t tab Morris in his crop for next month’s World Cup qualifiers. The 22-year-old also seems relatively certain to be a part of the Gold Cup plans.

“I’m excited and hopefully I get called up,” he said. “These World Cup qualifiers are obviously a very big deal and Bruce has done a really good job of getting us on the same page.”

Morris is also participating in a unique promotional activity with Delta Air Lines for Sounders fans, as he and Cristian Roldan are among Seattle teams picking fans for “positions” in a Fan XI. Once assembled, they’ll travel to L.A. for a Sounders road match and even sign one-day contracts. Morris was happy to get on board with it.

“It’s for our fans, who are amazing,” he said. “Delta’s idea to make a Fan XI gives the fansa chance to have the behind the scenes experience of being part of a team put together by having different skills. We love rewarding our fans.”

Day Seven: All the action from the U20 World Cup (video)

Kim In-chul/Yonhap via AP
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Mexico has automatically qualified for the knockout rounds of the U-20 World Cup despite falling to Venezuela.

[ MORE: U-20 World Cup latest

Germany dropped below Mexico in goal differential after allowing a 3-0 lead to sink to one, though El Tri still likely would’ve advanced to the next phase despite Germany’s result.

Mexico 0-1 Venezuela

Caracas 19-year-old striker Sergio Cordova scored for the third-straight match in what is sure to make him a hot summer commodity as Venezuela clinched Group B with a perfect 3-0 record.

Germany 3-2 Vanuatu

Vanuatu’s potential name of the tournament Bong Kalo scored twice in the second half to sink Germany below Mexico on goal difference.

Guinea 0-5 Argentina

A brace from Lautaro Martínez gives Argentina hope of the knockout rounds with a third-place finish.

England 1-0 South Korea

Everton’s Kieran Dowell scored the lone goal of the match to give England the Group A crown.

Zabaleta staying in Premier League with West Ham move

@WHUFC
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A week after bidding Manchester City an emotional goodbye, Pablo Zabaleta has announced he’ll be staying in England.

The 32-year-old right back is moving to London, where he’ll join West Ham United on a two-year deal beginning July 1.

[ MORE: Three key battles in FA Cup Final ]

The San Lorenzo youth product went to Espanyol in 2005 to begin his European adventure, joining Man City in 2008. He won two PL titles, two League Cups, and an FA Cup, and was named the club’s player of the season in 2012-13.

From WHUFC.com:

“Manchester City gave me the opportunity to come to this wonderful league, the Premier League, something I’ve been enjoying a lot as a player and of course for me it was probably the right time to move on.

“Also, as a player, I thought I wanted to keep playing in the Premier League. For me, after being in this country for so long, this is a new challenge for me in the Premier League and I’m ready for it and looking forward to it.”

Maybe he just wanted 3G.

Young Sam Byram can learn plenty from Zabaleta, and the signing means that star right-sided man Michail Antonio likely won’t have to be wasted at right back in emergency situations. Good risk by the Hammers.

Valencia extends Man Utd deal to great Mourinho praise

Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Jose Mourinho has made no secret of his Antonio Valencia appreciation, and the Manchester United manager has rewarded his fullback with a new deal.

Valencia is nine appearances away from 300 in a Manchester United kit, with 22 goals and 61 assists as a Red Devil.

[ MORE: Monaco star’s Man City medical ]

Valencia said United has “been my life” since arriving from Wigan Athletic in 2009, while Mourinho heaped praise on the Ecuadorian captain’s character with glowing praise.

“It is no secret that I had been an admirer of Antonio’s long before I joined the club. I knew what a fantastic player he was and he has not disappointed me on that front. However, what I could never have imagined was what a great person he is. I know I have said this before but I truly believe it is a real privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man. I am delighted he has extended his contract.”

Only Ander Herrera and Eric Bailly recorded better tackle rates at Old Trafford last season, and Valencia was credited with a team-best 1.5 crosses per game.