Sporting Kansas City v Houston Dynamo - Eastern Conference Semifinals

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.

VIDEO: Incredible goal from Graziano Pelle in China

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Graziano Pelle seems to be enjoying his time in the Chinese Super League with 5 goals and two assists in his first 12 games in China.

It’s no wonder he’s having fun when he’s scoring goals like this.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Pelle, 31, joined CSL side Shandong Lenung in July from Premier League side Southampton with plenty of people around the world raising their eyebrows at him.

With reported wages of over $250,000 per week making him the joint-sixth highest paid player in the world, you can understand why he moved to China for the final few years of his career.

Pelle’s decision to head to the Far East also hasn’t harmed his international chances as he continues to get callups to the Italian national team. Although, after refusing to shake the coaches hand during the last international break after he was substituted he may find callups harder to come by in the future.

Putting all of that aside, let’s marvel in the beauty of his fine finish in the CSL on Wednesday against Chongqing Lifan.

From the chest control, to the flick over the defenders head and then the volley, it has to be a contender for FIFA’s Puskas award which is given to the best goal score in world soccer each year.

Graziano, take it away…

Napoli treating Higuain as a traitor after record transfer

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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ROME (AP) A traitor. A mercenary. An ingrate.

Napoli fans have no shortage of insulting words when it comes to describing Gonzalo Higuain, the striker who transferred to rival Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million) after scoring 36 goals last season to break a 66-year-old Serie A record.

So it will be interesting to see what type of reception Higuain gets when he faces his old club for the first time as Napoli visits Juventus on Saturday.

“I’ll greet him like a father does with a son who has really (ticked) him off,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said.

Napoli forward Dries Mertens, one of Higuain’s best friends when they played together, was asked if he would prepare a “trick” for his former teammate to celebrate Halloween.

“No. At most, I’ll give him a slap,” Mertens said with a laugh.

Napoli fans are banned from attending the match for security reasons. That may prevent replicating a scene like when Luis Figo returned to face Barcelona after transferring to Real Madrid in 2000 and a pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch.

Juventus doesn’t visit Napoli until April.

Other strikers have left Napoli at the height of their powers in recent years – namely Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who went to Paris Saint-Germain – but the fact that Higuain moved to the club’s fiercest domestic competitor has sparked more outrage.

With 71 league goals in 104 Serie A matches for Napoli the past three seasons, Higuain’s popularity in Naples was beginning to approach that of Diego Maradona, his fellow Argentine who led Napoli to its only two league titles in 1987 and 1990.

When the transfer was announced in July, Napoli fans publicly threw their Higuain shirts, banners and scarves into the trash.

Outside the San Paolo stadium at Napoli matches this season, vendors sell toilet paper with Higuain’s image printed on it.

“He prefers the money to our love,” read a headline in Naples’ Il Mattino newspaper after the transfer.

The artisans on Naples’ famed San Gregorio Armeno street placed placards in the hands of Higuain’s Christmas figurine that read, “I’m a traitor” and “I’m a mercenary.”

Higuain was lambasted for performing medical exams with Juventus in secret in Madrid.

“Neapolitans were met with betrayal this summer,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis said. “(Higuain’s) brother (and manager) told me in February that he wanted to leave because there were no other stars in our squad besides him.”

Higuain attempted to calm the tensions before the season started by thanking Napoli’s fans for supporting him the past three years, but that only seemed to cause more problems.

Ten games into the season, Juventus holds a four-point lead over third-place Napoli.

Higuain enters on a four-match scoring drought in all competitions, while Napoli has struggled to replace him at center forward.

With seven goals in eight matches in all competitions, newly signed Poland forward Arkadiusz Milik was filling in quite nicely until he severely injured his left knee.

Manolo Gabbiadini, who had performed well as a backup to Higuain the past two seasons, struggled to replace Milik, then was suspended for two matches for a reaction foul last weekend.

As a result, Sarri has been relying on a three-man forward line with Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon flanking Mertens. The trio has been labeled the “piccoli” line for the players’ small stature.

“We don’t have a natural striker right now and we’ve got to adapt,” Sarri said.

Besides Higuain’s recent troubles, Juventus has its own injury problems in attack with Paulo Dybala and Marko Pjaca each out for several weeks.

Higuain started the season with six goals in seven Serie A matches but hasn’t scored since. He struggled again in a 4-1 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday.

“Higuain will score again soon, and by the end of the season he’ll have scored many,” Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said.

A goal against Napoli would be difficult for his former fans to digest.

Follow AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf on Twitter:

VIDEO: Southampton’s Boufal scores stunner on home debut

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  Sofiane Boufal of Southampton in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at Etihad Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Sofiane Boufal, take a bow.

[ MORE: EFL Cup, last 8 draw

Southampton’s club-record signing has had to hang around at St Mary’s for two long months while he recovered from injury.

But, on his home debut, the Moroccan international wasted no time in opening his account for Saints in stunning fashion.

Boufal arrived in August for $19.5 million from French side Lille but was nursing a knee injury from the end of last season. He had appeared off the bench against Inter Milan and Manchester City over the past week but on Wednesday he made his first start for the club and his first appearance at St Mary’s.

He didn’t disappoint.

In the 66th minute of a largely unforgettable game, Boufal scored the game-winner as Southampton beat Sunderland 1-0 to move onto the EFL Cup quarterfinals where they’ll face Arsenal.

The 23-year-old took a mesmerizing first touch out of the air, then jinxed inside and sent an unstoppable shot into the far top corner.

I was at St Mary’s last night and was right behind this strike. It has to be one of the best goals I’ve ever seen live.

See it for yourself, below.

First the touch…

Then the finish…

And why not have another look from another angle…

Jose Mourinho charged over referee comments

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho is never far away from controversy.

[ MORE: Crowd trouble in EFL Cup ]

On Thursday the English FA announced the manager of Manchester United had been charged for comments about referee Anthony Taylor before their game against Liverpool last Monday.

Ahead of the 0-0 draw at Anfield, Mourinho had questioned the appointment of Taylor as referee given the fact that Taylor resides close to Manchester and some may influence some of his decisions.

This is what the FA had to say, as there is a clear rule in place which bans managers from talking about refereeing appointments before the game.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has been charged with misconduct, in respect of comments he made relating to the appointed match referee prior to the Liverpool FC v Manchester United FC fixture on Monday 17 October 2016.

It is alleged his comments were improper and/or brought the game into disrepute contrary to FA Rule E3(1).

Mr Mourinho has until 6pm on Monday 31 October 2016 to respond to the charge.

So, what did Mourinho actually say about Taylor’s appointment as the referee?

“Somebody with intention is putting such a pressure on him. I feel that it will be difficult for him to have a very good performance.”

Mourinho went on to say he thought Taylor was a very good referee but still, those comments have landed him in hot water with a potential touchline ban and/or fine heading his wau.

No contentious decisions were made by Taylor during the derby game and after the match Mourinho asked his press officer what he could say to the media about the referee for fear of further action.

Mourinho is no stranger to being charged by the FA when it comes to comments against referees.

In October 2015 he was fined for his post-game comments in Chelsea’s loss to Southampton where he said referees were “afraid” to give decisions for his team. Then in November he was fined and handed a one-game touchline ban after going into the referees dressing room at half time of a defeat at West Ham to contest their decisions.