MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at Sporting KC

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Wednesday’s game on the big field at Livestrong Sporting Park promises to look nothing like Sunday’s scrappy match on a smaller patch of beaten down grass in Houston.

It will surely still be physical, but a surface more conducive to a skillful game will mean a little more soccer, a little less scuffling for 50-50 balls and scrapping for second balls.

Either way, Sporting KC has its work cut out. Goalkeeper Tally Hall and the Dynamo back line have a two-goal cushion thanks to Sunday’s win in Texas, so a draw will do for a highly confident Dynamo team that knows its way around the MLS playoffs. In fact, even a one-goal loss would suffice.

Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET, Livestrong Sporting Park, MLS Live

Houston leads the total goals series, 2-0

On the Houston Dynamo

  • Houston is 5-1 in the playoffs over the last two years. Let that sink in.
  • Dominic Kinnear’s team was just 3-9-5 on the road this year, with a minus-12 goal difference. But … the Dynamo did go into Chicago last week and come out with well-managed win.
  • More critical in framing this one is Houston’s relative success at Livestrong Sporting Park. They haven’t lost in three appearances since a 3-0 loss last year in Houston’s frist trip to 18-month-old stadium. Houston stunned SKC in last year’s Eastern Conference final and managed two draws at Livestrong this year.
  • Hall was excellent in the September draw (1-1), making seven saves.
  • He’ll need to be on his game again, especially if Jermaine Taylor can’t play. Bobby Boswell’s central partner along the back line limped out of Sunday’s contest and remains questionable, although he did train Tuesday before the team left Houston. Canadian international Andrew Hainault will man the position if Taylor cannot.
  • Few central midfielders will cover as much ground over a match as Ricardo Clark, who sets up at the top of Houston’s midfield diamond, but drops reliably in alongside Adam Moffat as the opposition draws in closer to Houston goal.
  • Kinnear, on his team’s subdued celebration following Sunday’s win and the understanding that nothing has been accomplished just yet: “The music is not boucning off the wall in the locker room. These guys have been through this before. They know what’s happening. This series with Kansas City is 180 minutes and a lot can happen out there. … We can’t let down.”

(MORE: Analysis of Sunday’s match)

On Sporting Kansas City

  • Sporting Kansas City is the Eastern Conference champion and plenty of people within the league and close to it had circled K.C. as the site they suspected MLS Cup 2012 would land. That’s in some doubt now.
  • The home team Wednesday suddenly has a hole to fill. Defensive midfielder Julio Cesar suffered a quadriceps injury late in Sunday’s 2-0 loss. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be a huge blow because Paulo Nagamura could fill in quite capably. Except that he’s hurt too. So…
  • SKC center backs Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler won more than their share of battles Sunday with Houston’s big stable of big forwards. (Although Collin picked a bad time to get stretched out of position, allowing himself to be turned en route to the Dynamo’s second goal).
  • Striker C.J. Sapong contributed some adequate hold-up work to the effort, and he made the Houston center backs work. But wingers Jacob Peterson and Kei Kamara need to be better Wednesday.
  • To win outright (without the extended period or penalty kicks) SKC will need to score three goals. How many times did they score more than two over a 34-game season? Just three times.
  • Graham Zusi led the league with 15 assists this year; Houston’s Brad Davis tied for fourth with 12.
  • Midfielder Roger Espinoza: “It’s going to be very tough, but it’s not impossible. I’ve seen it happen many, many times. I don’t think I’ve been on a team before that’s done that, but it’s happened before. This is what we play for – to make amazing things happen.”

(MORE: No excuses offered from Peter Vermes)

Bottom line:

It really is about the first goal Wednesday.

If Houston gets that one, Sporting Kansas City’s uphill climb goes from tough to something just this side of impossible.  But if Sporting KC can turn up with the opener, the Blue Hell of Livestrong Sporting Park will be about as loud and blue as you can possibly imagine – and it’s not hard to imagine a second goal dropping in short order as the energy, initiative and motivation soars.

Sporting Kansas City certainly has the ability to carve out a memorable night … but it’s hard to bet against a cushioned, Kinnear-coached team in this one.

Report: Ola Kamara wanted by mid-table La Liga outfit

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Columbus Crew star Ola Kamara is ready to leave the side, but he may not be moving inside of Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: FA Cup replay roundup ]

Metro.Us reporter Kristian Dyer says the Norwegian star is subject to a bid from a mid-table La Liga club. He’d been linked with a trade to Colorado as well.

Kamara, 28, came to MLS from Austria Wien and has since scored 34 goals in two seasons, a year after bagging 21 goals on loan for Molde in Norway.

Seventh place and 15th are separated by just four points in Spain’s top flight. Leganes and Espanyol are having the hardest time scoring goals, in terms of mildly educated speculation.

Transfer rumor roundup: Fred to Man City; Aubameyang wanted

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Could this January transfer window rival last season’s in terms of activity?

[ MORE: FA Cup replay roundup ]

Last season saw Crystal Palace save its season and Hull City nearly do the same, Morgan Schneiderlin head to Everton, Leicester find a decent N'Golo Kante replacement, and much, much more.

This season has been less active, though Ross Barkley has headed to Chelsea while former club Everton nabbed Cenk Tosun and Liverpool added Virgil Van Dijk.

The BBC has news involving Napoli which could affect two Premier League clubs. The Neapolitans apparently want Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who wants to be an every week starter, to be a prime part of their push to end Juventus’ Serie A stranglehold.

That would unseat Pepe Reina, who’s been long linked with a reunion with former boss Pepe Reina at Newcastle United. Napoli currently has Luigi Sepe as a No. 2 to Reina, though UEFA Europa League fixtures mean it’s no guarantee Mignolet’s arrival would allow Reina to leave town.

Sky Sports says Manchester City would like to see Fred as a long-term replacement for Fernandinho. Fred went 90 minutes for Shakhtar Donetsk in a pair of UEFA Champions League contests against City, including the 2-1 home win over the Premier League leaders’ B-squad on Dec. 6. The 24-year-old has two goals and two assists in league play, and could cost more than $25 million.

Don Balon proffers news that could unsettle Arsenal fans, as Real Madrid is apparently entering the bidding for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Florentino Perez would like an upgrade to Karim Benzema for his struggling La Liga super powers, and goodness knows Real will tempt Borussia Dortmund’s bank account.

One liners:

— The BBC also says Besiktas want Islam Slimani to join the club from Leicester City.

— Ola Kamara’s move from Columbus to another MLS team may be hijacked by La Liga.

Mourinho reportedly close to Man Utd contract extension

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Jose Mourinho is scheduling an extended stay at Manchester United.

[ MORE: Donovan unveiled by Leon ]

The 54-year-old has a contract through the end of next season, the dreaded third at a club for Mourinho, but reports say United is keen to keep him around through 2021.

Mourinho has not tasted a fourth season with a club despite winning league titles at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid.

The 2019-20 season at Old Trafford would be Mourinho’s fourth. According to the BBC:

Talks have progressed well and it is now just a matter of time before Mourinho commits to remain at Old Trafford beyond the expiry of his present deal in 2019.

Somehow, this feels it should be deemed another loss for Antonio Conte.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.