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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Everton 2-0 Hajduk Split: Toffees cruise in Europa League first leg

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  • Keane nabs first EFC goal
  • Baines, Rooney with classy assists
  • Gueye scores rare goal
  • Second leg Aug. 24 in Croatia

Michael Keane and Idrissa Gana Gueye scored as Everton took a 2-0 lead over HNK Hajduk Split in a UEFA Europa League playoff round first leg at Goodison Park on Thursday.

Leighton Baines and Wayne Rooney had assists for the Toffees, while Jordan Pickford, Ademola Lookman, and Davy Klaassen also posted lively performances for the hosts ahead of next week’s second leg.

The Toffees could’ve scored four or five if not for questionable offside calls alone, and the match was interrupted in the first half when the Hajduk support section got out of hand.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ademola Lookman won an early corner for Everton that led to nothing, and played a terrific ball into the center of the box that Davy Klaassen just missed with a sliding effort.

Hajduk had a moment in two in transition, but the Toffees handled it well. Baines in particular broke up the earliest sign of danger.

The breakthrough goal was splendid, with Baines scooping up a punched corner kick and darting past a defender to dink an aesthetically-pleasing ball into traffic for Keane to head home. 1-0, 30′.

The match was stalled for 5-10 minutes after riotous behavior from visiting Hajduk Split supporters, who tossed bottles onto the field and charged at the stewards (one appeared to punch a security guard).

The Toffees went up 2-0 off a classy assist from Rooney, who was moving away from the defense when he cut a ball to a darting Gueye. The Senegalese engine provided a rare goal in the 45th minute.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule ]

The chances were at a premium for both sides in the second half, with Everton still having the better of play. But Jordan Pickford had to get horizontal to make an outstanding two-handed parry on a Hajduk rush in the 61st minute.

Hajduk really found its game late as Everton seemed to rest on its laurels. Pickford was livid, and called into duty to make some big stops and preserve an important home clean sheet.

America’s latest Bundesliga teenager eyes the future

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As recently as Wednesday, Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie joined his American teammate Nick Taitague and fellow Yank teenager Christian Pulisic for an afternoon of FIFA at Pulisic’s place in Gelsenkirchen.

How long those sort of friendly meetings will endure is up for discussion, because one of the world’s best rivalries has two young American friends on either side.

McKennie is a whopping 21 days older than Borussia Dortmund’s Pulisic, and will turn 19 on August 28. He’s also following in the footsteps of Pulisic as a teenage member of the Revierderby.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“When we hang out it doesn’t come up, but we know in the back of our heads that when that game comes around we’ll have to hit pause on our friendship,” McKennie told ProSoccerTalk. “After that game we’ll see how it goes, but I’m sure it’ll be the same.”

The friendship of McKennie, Pulisic, Taitague, and Haji Wright — Wright has left Schalke for a loan stint at Sandhausen in 2.Bundesliga — has otherwise been a boon to the American quartet, and it isn’t wild to consider the unit’s formative days in Germany as a harbinger of what’s to come for the United States men’s national team.

McKennie, 18, could be a massive part of American soccer in the future. Rated the 13th best U-20 prospect in the Bundesliga, the Texas-born midfielder has drawn glowing reviews from new manager Dominic Tedesco, who lauded the player’s “super pressing game” in a senior debut earlier this week, and veterans Benedikt Howedes and Matija Nastasic only had good things to say in conversations with PST this week.

“In the defensive midfield he already operates very mature,” said Howedes, the longtime Schalke man who won the 2014 World Cup with Germany. “He works hard all the time and showed in pre-season that he can help us. If he develops like he has done until now, the team will be pleased with him. Also, he is clever in his head and a really funny guy.”

Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, is very pleased with McKennie’s two-way game.

[ MORE: Thursday’s transfer rumor roundup | Wednesday | Tuesday ]

“He’s very very good player in the middle because he can go up front and finish actions but also in defense he’s very good,” Nastasic said. “For me, he’s a box-to-box player who can run and is strong. He can be very very good.”

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Both players stressed patience with McKennie and a Schalke squad that has youthful talent in bunches. In addition to the American teenager, there’s Swiss sensation Breel Embolo, Algerian midfielder Nabil Bentaleb, and German trio Max Meyer, Leon Goretzka, and Fabian Reese.

In Meyer and Goretzka, McKennie has teammates who boast more than 210 league appearances despite a combined age of 43. Both won silver medals at the 2016 Olympics and Goretkza won the Silver Boot and Bronze Ball as Germany won the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.

The fact that these players surround McKennie, Schalke’s youngest First Teamer, and have done so much at their ages is not lost on the American midfielder.

“Being around guys who’ve accomplished so much at a young age, even with Christian being younger than me and achieving so much and setting the way over here, you’re surrounding yourself with people who are only going to make you better,” McKennie said.

“Knowing ‘This kid’s only one year older than me. This kid’s only two years older than me,’ and seeing the way they carry themselves and the amount of experience they’ve had, it rubs off on you.”

And it’s not just the young guys bringing the energy as Schalke prepares for its Bundesliga opener on Saturday against Red Bull Leipzig.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Brooks out 3 months for Wolfsburg ]

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are. The older guys like Naldo and Coke still joke around with young guys. Me being the youngest I get a little bit more than everyone else.”

As for his American hopes, McKennie has spoken of his hopes to get into Bruce Arena’s USMNT fold. He’s hopeful for a call into a friendly camp in the next year, and harbors long shot hopes for a spot on a potential World Cup roster.

Playing an important position in one of the world’s top leagues at age 18 won’t hurt that, though minutes will certainly be difficult to come by this season given Schalke has a rare campaign outside of both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.

And it may not surprise then when asked to target his role as a potential international, he hopes to grow into a player who’d be described as a mix of two of the United States’ all-time best at that position (one who’s starred at Schalke).

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“I’d kinda say Jermaine Jones if you had to choose a national team player, for the stuff that he does and maybe Michael Bradley, one of those players who is calm on the ball and can play that long ball, the one that is there at the right moments.” McKennie said, though at his age he obviously hasn’t seen a wide variety of USMNT center mids.

“Jermaine in my eyes is one of those guys who gets stuck in no matter what. He goes with all he has, and does the dirty work. That’s kinda how I picture myself.”

All of that isn’t to put the cart before the horse. McKennie is very clear in answering any questions about his future with measured responses. He has a lot of work to do to continue his rise into Schalke’s set-up.

[ MORE: Costa — “I must return to Atletico Madrid” ]

For now, he’ll keep doing what he’s doing, working as hard as possible to maintain a spot in Tedesco’s mix and growing alongside Taitague and Wright, and across the pitch from Pulisic, even as his BVB buddy makes it a bit harder to go out on the town.

“In his area and even in Gelsenkirchen because we’re rivals, he’s noticeable, but he’s not a player who tries to be noticed,” McKennie said. “There are players who try to be noticed, but he’s not. He’s not gonna say no to taking a photo, but even if he’s having a bad day he finds a way to put on a smile. He’s younger than me and I can still look up to him.”

That is until they hopefully hit the same grass for one of the game’s best matches.

Clement says Sigurdsson fee could leave Swans better off

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Many have feared the worst for Swansea City following the sale of Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton, but fortunately the club’s boss isn’t too worried about the departure of his Icelandic star.

Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente were nearly all of Swansea’s attack last season as the Welsh side barely avoided relegation. The club’s third coach of the season, Paul Clement, was instrumental in that change of fate.

[ MORE: Thursday’s transfer rumor roundup | Wednesday | Tuesday ]

He’s not worried about the absence, though, because he feels the approximately $60 million coming into his transfer kitty can leave the squad better than it was before Sigurdsson was sold to Everton.

“We want to improve our playing squad, we want to improve our style we want to win more games we believe that with the funds we have available we can strengthen the squad and end up being a better team.”

And, Clement said, now agents and managers know Swansea has the money to do some business. He says they won’t panic because sometimes the deals improve right before the deadline.

“Yesterday various people who work here at this club, their phones were going, the texts were coming in, the emails were coming in from agents all over the world, because they know we’ve done the Gylfi deal and want to do business and bring players in.”

What do you think? Could Sigurdsson’s fee be the goodbye gift that keeps on giving for a Swans side which is considered a relegation candidate?

LIVE – Everton, AC Milan, Ajax in Europa League action

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Everton, AC Milan and Ajax, three of the bigger sides fighting for passage into the Europa League proper, find themselves 180 minutes from the group stage as the final round of qualifying kicks off on Thursday.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Everton have Croatian side Hajduk Split at Goodison Park for the first leg (3:05 p.m. ET), while Milan host Macedonian side KF Shkendija (2:45 p.m. ET) and Ajax are home to Rosenborg of Norway (2:45 p.m. ET).

[ MORE: Thursday’s transfer rumor roundup | Wednesday | Tuesday ]

Thursday’s notable Europa League fixtures

Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m. ET
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET