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: Liverpool to escape punishment over Van Dijk pursuit

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The Times states that Liverpool will not be punished further for pursuing Southampton defender Virgil Van Dijk.

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Earlier this month the Reds issued a public apology to Southampton and stated they had ended their interest in the 25-year-old Dutch defender following allegations that Van Dijk was flown to Blackpool (just north of Liverpool) to meet with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and their manager messaged VVD “regularly” as they chased the Dutch international.

Southampton, as you would expect, were far from happy about this so-called “tapping up” from Liverpool and reported the Reds to the Premier League by making an official complaint.

Liverpool’s apology was then followed by a preliminary investigation, but reports state that there will be no further action taken against Liverpool by the PL with “insufficient evidence” to support the claims surrounding the alleged “tapping up” of Van Dijk and unless new evidence arrives then the case will be closed.

Regardless, this whole episode has been incredibly embarrassing for Liverpool, especially when you take into account their current ban from signing academy players when a similar case cropped up over chasing a youngster in Stoke City’s academy.

Klopp has not only lost the chance to sign Van Dijk (at least, that’s the way it seems for now) but Liverpool have also lost some respect for the way they supposedly went about this business. American owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) went to great lengths to apologize for this situation and are keen to stress they always conduct their business in a respect manner.

Now, we would all be a little naive to believe that this type of thing doesn’t happen a lot in soccer. A player (usually through his agent) will perhaps gently let another team know he’s interested in a move to them, and the ball gets rolling from there. Of course, the two clubs are supposed to agree a fee for the player first and then said player can meet with his potential new club to square away the details.

Southampton are said to still be furious about the approach from Liverpool to Van Dijk, so much so that if they were to sell their star player and captain this summer (they maintain he’s not for sale) they’d rather take less money from another club (Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal are all said to be interested) than let him leave for Anfield for over $70 million.

After Liverpool plucked Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne and Sadio Mane from Saints in the past few years, it’s easy to understand why the South Coast club are now standing firm and saying enough is enough.

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

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Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

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Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

[ MORE: USMNT’s 23-man roster questions ]

That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

[ MORE: Chelsea sells Traore ]

Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup