MLS playoff preview: D.C. United at Houston Dynamo

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Both teams are coming off massive achievement, as fifth-seeded Houston upset top-seeded Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference semifinals while United gutted out that memorable 1-0 win at New York to secure the other conference semifinal.

Houston is not a place where D.C. United has done well, and two matches this year year were dropped by a combined 5-0.

Then again, Ben Olsen’s club has that little feel of “destiny” around them, and they sure haven’t done much losing lately.

The clubs meet Sunday downtown in Houston to kick off the home-and-away, total  goals series.

Eastern Conference finals: first of two legs

(Official league preview is here)

Sunday’s Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET, BBVA Compass Stadium, NBC Sports Network

On D.C. United

  • Talk about getting things right at the exact, right time: United is 6-0-3 since early September. They’ve forgotten what it feels like to lose!
  • This will be United’s third trip into BBVA Compass Stadium – and the downtown ground of abundant orange paint hasn’t been kind to Olsen’s boys. They were Houston’s first victims in the brand new ground back in May. And a meeting in South Texas in July went wrong in all kinds of ways for D.C., who finished on the wrong end of a 4-0 whuppin.
  • Overall, United is 0-8-1 in Houston. Hard to feel good about something like that.
  • United will be without Andy Najar, who received an additional two-game suspension following his unwise actions in the opening leg of his team’s series win over New York. That means Robbie Russell at right back again. He’s probably a better defender, but Russell doesn’t pose anything close to the threat Najar does going forward.

(MORE: Thinking our way around Najar’s suspension)

  • Last time these teams met in Houston, Bill Hamid charged out wildly to take down Mac Kandji, leaving his team a man down and facing a penalty kick. He won’t be around to do so this time; against New York on Thursday, Hamid charged out wildly to take down Kenny Cooper, leaving his team a man down and facing a penalty kick.
  • Here’s a recap of the 4-0 loss.
  • Backup goalkeeper Joe Willis, based on his solid work earlier this year in Hamid’s absence, is not a huge dropoff in quality.
  • If Chris Korb is healthy enough, he will start Sunday at left back, where he did so well as United opened the playoffs. If not, it’s probably Lewis Neal’s job again.
  • Every day that goes by, we inch a little closer to a possible Dwayne De Rosario sighting in the playoffs.
  • United has one day rest fewer than the home team; that’s courtesy of the second big storm to batter the East Coast over two weeks, this one a big snow dumper that forced a 24-hour postponement of the teams’ match, which was scheduled for Wednesday in New Jersey.

On Houston

  • What to say at this point about Houston, a team that simply knows how to grind out playoff results? The Orange went to Chicago and found a way to get by the Fire. They hustled and bustled their way to two goals and a sizeable mental edge in a mess of a match against Kansas City down in Houston, then held on for dear, sweet life in the return leg at Livestrong Sporting Park.
  • Houston still has not lost a competitive match inside BBVA Compass Stadium.
  • Center back Jermaine Taylor is back at training but remains questionable. Andrew Hainault, who played well in Wednesday’s series second leg in Kansas City will fill in again if Taylor, a Jamaican international, cannot make it.
  • Starting forward Calen Carr, who left Wednesday’s match with a hamstring injury, looks in serious doubt.
  • One man well rested for the Dynamo: veteran striker Brian Ching, who played just nine minutes over two legs against Sporting Kansas City. Given the injury to Carr, could we see a start from the veteran, former U.S. international? Either way, this will surely be Ching’s last match in Houston, as he seems set to retire at year’s end. (Houston is the one playoff team remaining that has no chance of  hosting MLS Cup 2012.)
  • Dominic Kinnear and his Dynamo are 180 minutes from appearing their second consecutive MLS Cup final. (They fell to L.A. last year at the Home Depot Center.)
  • Houston has allowed 12 goals in 18 regular season and playoff games at BBVA. That’s just ridiculous.
  • The Dynamo has arrived into a conference final for the fifth time in seven seasons.
  • Just watch Sunday and see how much ground Ricardo Clark covers from his central midfield position.
  • Goalkeeper Tally Hall has allowed four goals in six playoff matches. That’s heady stuff, especially considering Hall is just a second-year starter, having apprenticed under Pat Onstad. (Onstad, by the way, is now a D.C. United assistant.)

Bottom line:

Who could blame either team for not finding their best level in this one? Given the physical demands on both teams in matches that stretched their limits in intensity and stamina, there’s every reason to expect cautious approaches and probably some sluggish legs Sunday.

Temperatures in the 80s with typical Houston mugginess won’t help, and it could be a particular hindrance to United, a side coming from a match where kickoff weather was about 40 degrees cooler.

Dynamo playoff matches don’t tend to deliver many goals, so this one has 1-0 written all over it. Considering history and the additional day of rest, this one certainly leans toward the Dynamo.

Bonus: the way EA Sports sees it playing out

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Schweinsteiger waiting on visa, training in Mallorca

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Bastian Schweinsteiger is waiting on a visa to make his trip to Chicago official.

It’s a formality, albeit a bit trickier now given the political climate in the United States. The former Manchester United midfielder is training at Real Mallorca ahead of the move.

The transfer was announced one week ago, and Schweinsteiger is anxious to get back on the pitch. Set for a 1-year, $4.5 million deal, the midfielder has not missed any Chicago matches yet.

[ MORE: Under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The Fire is 1-1-1 to start the new season under Veljko Paunovic, and has three home matches next: Montreal (Saturday), Columbus (Apr. 8), and New England (Apr. 15)

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.