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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Watch Live: Mexico vs. Russia, NZ vs. Portugal

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Group A comes to a close on Saturday, with a pair of spots in the semifinals on the line. The group is jam-packed at the top, with nobody confirmed on to the next round and only New Zealand eliminated.

Russia meets group-leaders Mexico at 11:00 a.m. ET in Kazan, with the hosts needing a win to advance, while a draw would complicate things for Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad. Mexico needs just a draw to confirm advancement.

WATCH LIVE: Mexico vs. Russia live online at Telemundo Deportes

Mexico has brought back its first-choice lineup for the final group stage match, with a number of rotations made in the near-disaster against New Zealand. However, Carlos Salcedo is out with a dislocated shoulder, bringing Nestor Araujo into the starting lineup. Hector Moreno starts despite his injury concerns.

On the other side, Portugal takes on New Zealand with a chance to win the group still intact. Portugal sits in second position currently, level with Mexico on both points and goal difference, but behind by one on goals scored. Should Portugal win and earn a greater goal difference or outscore Mexico by more than one, they would win the group.

WATCH LIVE: Portugal vs. New Zealand live online at Telemundo Deportes

Cristiano Ronaldo starts for Portugal yet again, fresh off his match-winning goal against Russia. They see both full-backs rotated from that match, with Raphael Guerreiro and Cedric rotated for Eliseu and Nelson Semedo.

New Zealand has already been eliminated, without a point thus far in the competition despite a pair of spirited performances for the Group A underdogs.

LINEUPS

Mexico: Ochoa, Moreno, Reyes, Layun, Araujo, Herrera, Guardado, J dos Santos, Hernandez, Lozano, Vela.

Russia: Akinfeev, Jikia, Kudryashov, Vasin, Glushakov, Erokhin, Bukharov, Samedov, Smolov, Zhirkov, Golovin.


Portugal: Patricio, Alves, Pepe, Eliseu, Semedo, Moutinho, Pereira, B Silva, Quaresma, Ronaldo, A Silva.

New Zealand: Marinovic, Durante, Smith, Boxall, Doyle, Ingham, Rojas, Thomas, McGlinchey, Wood, Lewis.

Huddersfield breaks transfer record for first recruit

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Huddersfield Town’s first signing as a Premier League team has broken the club’s transfer record.

The newly promoted side snagged Belgian striker Laurent Depoitre from FC Porto, the club has confirmed. The 28-year-old had played in the Belgian ranks his entire career before trying his hand internationally, moving to Porto last summer. Unfortunately, he found playing time scarce, and has looked to the Premier League for a career revival.

“He is a proper striker,” said Huddersfield manager David Wagner. “One who has played for a very good Belgium side, featured in elite European competition and who has won domestic titles. It is great news that we have had the opportunity to sign a player of his quality and now we will focus on getting him back to the top form he showed only a season ago.”

Wagner also mentioned how Depoitre fits the “Terrier mentality” with a hard-working playing style.

The signing of Depoitre was at an undisclosed fee, but the club confirmed it broke the transfer record. Some reports tab the signing at around $6 million. That would far and away mark the highest fee paid by the club, with the previous record set last summer for German defender Christopher Schindler who arrived from 1860 Munich for around $2.2 million.

Still, that transfer record could be shattered again, with the club expected to announce the permanent signing of Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy for a reported $12.7 million.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Lacazette to Arsenal, Aguero to PSG

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Things are beginning to truly heat up in the transfer market as we approach the official opening of the window. No serious domino has fallen yet, with the biggest signing so far proving to be Liverpool’s capture of Mohamed Salah.

Still, the big guns are taking aim, and the feel is that, while still needing some time, the bomb could drop at any moment. Here’s what’s making the rounds today:


Arsenal is being linked to several top-line forwards, many from Arsene Wenger‘s home country of France. One of them, Alexander Lacazette, could be progressing significantly.

According to The Guardian and the Telegraph, the Gunners are preparing a $56 million bid for the Lyon frontman, an amount which would prove to break the club transfer record. The report says Arsenal has spoken with Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas and “agreement is close” on a transfer fee.

The report also states that Lacazette is open to the idea of moving to Arsenal, although the lack of Champions League play would be a drawback. Nevertheless, with the degradation of his favored move to Atletico Madrid due ot the club’s transfer ban, Arsenal would still reportedly be a foreseeable destination.


Manchester City also has striker news; two of them, in fact. First, Sergio Aguero’s career continues to find itself shrouded in mystery. With Gabriel Jesus‘s explosion onto the Manchester City scene, Aguero can be nothing but unsure of his role in the team moving forward.

With the recent ultimatum from Italian midfielder Marco Verratti possibly serving as motivation, French giants Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly preparing a massive bid to lure Aguero away from the Etihad. According to The Times, PSG is weighing a potential $76 million bid for the Argentinian. It’s no surprise that the bid would need to be massive to pry Aguero free. Not only has his goalscoring record proved vital to City in the past, but he has also stated multiple times he wishes to stay and fight for a first-team spot despite the arrival of Jesus.

The 28-year-old has a contract at Manchester City that runs through the summer of 2019, meaning if he is to be sold, time is running out for City to deal him.


Another Manchester City striker is in the news. With both Aguero and Jesus ahead of him, Kelechi Iheanacho has fallen from young gun to bench player. The 20-year-old has been looking for a new home, but things have bogged down because his parent club is insisting on a buy-back clause.

Iheanacho has been linked with both Watford and West Ham, with the pair of clubs both heavily in the market for a new striker. Leicester City has also reportedly been in the mix for Iheanacho. According to The Telegraph, Manchester City realizes that they may be letting a significant talent leave the club, and they’d like to give themselves the option of bringing him back. That will obviously lower the asking price considerably, but could be a benefit in the future.


One bit of completed business, former Premier League striker Victor Anichebe has completed a move to China, where he has joined second-tier club Beijing Enterprises Group.

Anichebe was with relegated Sunderland as recently as last season, but failed to make an impression and also saw his time hampered by injuries. The Chinese club he has joined is the club of late Ivorian Chieck Tiote, who passed away last week during training.

Marco Verratti crushes teammates in PSG ultimatum

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When asked if he wants to leave Paris Saint-Germain, Marco Verratti gave an answer sure to turn the heads of his teammates in the French capital.

Transfer rumors have swirled around the Italian midfielder all summer, and he finally addressed the situation in Italian publication Gazzetta dello Sport. When asked if he wanted to leave, Verratti said he’d like to stay, but if he is to do so, the club must come through in the transfer window.

“It’s not that I want to go at all costs,” Verratti said. “It’s just I want to see if they really do build a great squad this time. In that case, I would be happy to stay.”

“Each year they say they are going to build a great squad, but we’ve seen the results. Promises are not enough. If, on the other hand, this time PSG with [sporting director Antero] Henrique stick to what they say, then I will be absolutely happy to stay. At the end of the day, nobody is forcing me to leave.”

It’s one thing for a player to say he thinks the club needs reinforcements in the summer, but Veratti goes all in here. For the Italian to claim that promises had been broken and good players were not brought in, that’s a ruthless aside to his current teammates.

Media reports have linked Verratti with a move away from Parc de Princes all summer. The 24-year-old has been most heavily linked with Barcelona, although clubs like Bayern Munich and Chelsea have been mentioned. According to a number of reports, Verratti turned down a new PSG contract as recently as last week in a meeting with the sporting director.