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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Wales boss Giggs claims he wont give in to commercial pressure to play Bale

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Wales is among the field of the China Cup, an international tournament in Guangxi, China, to play a pair of international friendlies this week.

New manager Ryan Giggs admitted there is outside pressure to play Gareth Bale in the event at some point, but admitted he will not put the Real Madrid star at risk just to appease sponsors. In fact, the only pressure he’s feeling is from himself.

“Any risks, stupid risks, I won’t be taking,” Giggs said. “But it’s also my first game and I want to get my best team out there.”

Wales missed out on the 2018 World Cup, and there’s little to gain from having Bale out on the field the entire time. Wales will play China in the semifinals on Thursday, and then meets the winner of Uruguay and Czech Republic next week.

According to reports, Wales would lose nearly $150,000 of its $1.5 million participation fee if Bale did not play.

“I’ve not spoken to [Real Madrid manager Zinedine] Zidane, but I’ve spoken to Gareth,” Giggs said. “I’ve been in contact with him regularly in the last few months and I’m not stupid because it’s an important part of the season.”

Bale has been smothered by injuries – mostly calf problems – during his Real Madrid career, missing a stretch of over two months through October and November with hamstring issues. He has been fit since, but Zidane rarely risks Bale for the full 90 minutes. In fact, Bale’s only three full 90’s of the 2018 calendar year have all come in the last three weeks.

The 28-year-old has three goals in his last five La Liga games, including one off the bench in a 6-3 win over Girona last weekend.

International preview: What is to come over the next week

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With the 2018 World Cup less than three months away, countries are taking these last moments to see players within their selection pool and make tweaks to the squad and tactics.

This week’s international window has already kicked off with the likes of South Africa, Liechtenstein, and Andorra taking the opportunity to see the field, and World Cup countries take the field tomorrow – two, to be exact. And they play each other.

Denmark and Panama meet in a rare friendly between countries set to take part in the summer festivities, with the match taking place in Bronby at 3pm ET. The two countries chose to play knowing they cannot possibly meet in Russia 2018 until at least the quarterfinals, with their respective Groups C and G split apart across the knockout rounds.

The hosts are fantastic from set-pieces and focus their attack around Tottenham star Christian Eriksen. Panama’s midfield rock Gabriel Gomez will likely be tasked with keeping Eriksen quiet, something the Republic of Ireland was unable to do last time Denmark took the field as Eriksen bagged a hat-trick. Defender Andreas Christensen is headed towards the World Cup in fantastic form with Chelsea, having earned a starting spot with the Blues. With some injuries at the back, Christensen has also played out wide along the back line before as well, something to keep watch for.

On Friday, the heavyweights begin to see the field as Uruguay hosts Czech Republic. The South American nation received a friendly draw in World Cup Group A, but brought in a solid European side to match wits with after the Czechs finished third in their qualifying group. Japan also takes to the pitch on Friday, playing Mali on a neutral field in Belgium. The Japanese will need to be at the top of their game come summer, matched into Group H against Colombia, Poland, and Senegal.

England and Argentina have both scheduled games against European sides that disappointed by failing to make the 2018 tournament. On Friday, England travels to Amsterdam to take on a Netherlands squad in turmoil, while Argentina travels to the Etihad to meet Italy.

Russia and Brazil meet in Moscow on Friday, with over 50,000 tickets already reportedly sold for the match at Luzhniki Stadium. The hosts will then get another stiff test as they take on France four days later on Tuesday. If Russia’s squad has lots of work to do before hosting the World Cup, we’ll know in a week.

The main event on Friday will be Germany and Spain meeting in Dusseldorf in a matchup of the last two World Cup winners. Germany will be without Manuel Neuer and Marco Reus, but still fields one of the deepest squads in the entire world. The Germans don’t then get the week off, having to meet Brazil on Tuesday. If Jogi Low’s side comes out of those matches on top, they could cement their status as favorites headed into the summer.

France has a stiff test as well, meeting Colombia on Friday. Like Denmark and Panama, the two countries reside in Groups C and H, meaning they could not rematch in the World Cup until at least the quarterfinals. The French then go to take on Russia next week.


Denmark vs. Panama
Slovakia vs. UAE
China vs. Wales
Algeria vs. Tanzania
Malta vs. Luxembourg

Germany vs. Spain
Italy vs. Argentina
Russia vs. Brazil
Netherlands vs. England
France vs. Colombia
Portugal vs. Egypt
Uruguay vs. Czech Republic
Mexico vs. Ireland
Poland vs. Nigeria
Austria vs. Slovenia
Peru vs. Croatia
Austria vs. Slovenia
Greece vs. Switzerland
Norway vs. Australia
Mali vs. Japan

Sweden vs. Chile

Kuwait vs. Cameroon
Nicaragua vs. Cuba

Portugal vs. Netherlands
Bulgaria vs. Kazakhstan

Russia vs. France
Germany vs. Brazil
England vs. Italy
Spain vs. Argentina
United States vs. Paraguay
Tunisia vs. Costa Rica
Colombia vs. Australia
Belgium vs. Saudi Arabia
Egypt vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Chile
Japan vs. Ukraine

Alexis Sanchez says he “expected better” from himself at Manchester United

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Alexis Sanchez isn’t happy with his performance so far at Manchester United.

The Chilean superstar has scored just one goal for the Red Devils in 10 appearances since joining from Arsenal, and the club has lost three of those games and has been knocked out of the Champions League by Sevilla.

Speaking with Chilean media on national team duty in Sweden, Sanchez said he expects more of himself and that he’s so far let himself down. “As I am self-demanding, I expected something better,” Sanchez said. “After my arrival at United, it was hard to change everything very quickly. I even hesitated to come here [to join the national team].”

Chile missed out on World Cup qualification, and has friendlies with Sweden and Denmark scheduled over the next week. With so little at stake, Sanchez was poised to take time off from the national team, but says he was convinced by Manchester City goalkeeper and Chilean captain Claudio Bravo to stick it out.

“The change of club was something that was very abrupt – it was the first time I’ve changed clubs in January – but many things have happened in my life that are difficult,” Sanchez said. “I had asked permission to miss these games, but then I thought better and spoke with Claudio and told him that we should all be united.”

Once the international break is over, Manchester United resumes Premier League play against Swansea at the end of March before an April 7th derby meeting with Manchester City.

James Collins injured in West Ham friendly

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West Ham defender James Collins hobbled off the field in the 29th minute of the Hammers’ friendly against Dagenham & Redbridge on Wednesday, a big blow to the club’s already paper-thin back line.

With the league on an international break, West Ham agreed to play a friendly against Dagenham & Redbridge to help raise money for National League club that could be in serious financial trouble. However, it could be detrimental to the short-term future of the Hammers, who are hoping to stave off relegation, sitting just two points above the drop.

The 34-year-old defender has missed significant time this season due to injury, with an ankle injury keeping Collins out for nearly three months in 2017. West Ham has lost just four of the 12 Premier League matches Collins has appeared in this season, with three clean sheets. However, two of those have come in the club’s last three games, thrashed by a combined 7-1 scoreline between 90 minutes against Liverpool and Burnley.

The injury comes at the worst possible time, with West Ham set to play Southampton in a critical relegation matchup between teams in the in 17th and 18th in the Premier League table. The Hammers are already without defender Winston Reid who remains out for the season with a knee injury, while the club sold center-back Jose Fonte to Chinese club Dalian Yifang F.C. in late February.

West Ham was hoping to do its part to help save the London club. Former director Glyn Hopkin abruptly resigned and pulled all financial backing in early February, leaving the club fearing for its immediate future. They reportedly need $353,000 just to stay afloat the rest of the season, even with zero club debt.