Drilling down on: Houston Dynamo 3, D.C. United 1

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Considering all, the visitors can feel OK about the way they played down in Houston. Against the most trying of circumstances, coach Ben Olsen’s team had a good plan, and then was sharper and more committed in the opening minutes.

The reward was a halftime lead … but it all fell apart as D.C. United simply could not keep up, the miles and playoff wear and tear all catching up.

So, credit United with a big, brave effort – but then credit the Houston Dynamo for taking advantage of with the road weary travelers and grabbing this Eastern Conference finals series by the neck.

The Dynamo found the flanks and found three goals after the break in a 3-1 win at BBVA Compass Stadium. So they’ll take that 3-1 lead into next week’s second leg of the total goals series at RFK Stadium.

Man of the Match:

Yes, Andrew Hainault deserved at least a yellow card (and possibly a red) for his drag-down on United midfielder Raphael Augusto just before halftime. But he didn’t get caught. And with that, Houston’s center back remained on the field to have a terrific influence, heading away everything within challenging range and being a major bother on set-pieces. He was also Andrew On the Spot to push in Houston’s first goal, a big one as the home team climbed back into the game.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Young scorers keep getting it done: Nick DeLeon’s first half goal for D.C. United may not look so big now, but if United can score a goal or two early at RFK, the rookie’s latest playoff contribution will begin to look absolutely massive.

What a week for the first-year man out of Louisville. His goal for D.C. United on Thursday at Red Bull Arena is surely the proud organization’s biggest strike in five years. Sunday, by staying alert and following the play, DeLeon was in the right spot to finish strong and give his team some hope in the series.

What DeLeon is doing for United, Will Bruin is doubling down on, at least, for Houston. His busy ways are always troublesome for opposition defenders. But when Bruin is stacking the misery by also scoring goals, Houston’s second-year man really does become a force.

Bruin crashed into position to finish Giles Barnes’ brilliant work along the flank in the 68th minute. That was the game-winner, not to mention his fourth goal of the playoffs. It was also his 21st goal in 61 appearances, regular season and playoffs included. That’s blue ribbon production for a second-year man.

It’s a series of attrition: United is feeling every tick of the season-long clock, and especially feeling the burn of a tough series against New York.

Missing goalkeeper Bill Hamid, right back Andy Najar, creative engine Dwayne De Rosario and defender Daniel Woolard to start, they were also without starting midfielders Chris Pontius and Marcelo Saragosa before halftime Sunday.

Pontius’ loss was potentially devastating. Not only did the livewire left-sided attacker represent the team’s top threat on offense, but leaving so early (in the 12th minute) forced Olsen to burn an early sub.

(Olsen had asked the young attacker whether a groin injury was well enough for starter’s duty. Pontius said it was, so he got the go-ahead. The point is, players sometimes let their emotions take over. It’s up to the coach to insist on honest conversations in these cases. You wonder if Olsen, still a young coach, learned a big  lesson here?)

Since Pontius is now further ailing with a groin problem, it’s possible he could be in trouble for the return leg, too.

Houston is in better shape at this point, but only slightly. Adam Moffat had to leave before intermission, completing the depletion of Houston’s central midfield core. Ricardo Clark was out of the 18-man game-day roster, also injured. Same for center back Jermaine Taylor, although Hainault proved more than adequate as a replacement.

Shame to see this series settled with so many influencers out, but that’s the deal when the playoff schedule gets compressed as it does.

Houston found its way after intermission: United really should feel good about it’s opening 45 minutes. More than getting the tactics right, and more than being the more committed team in tackles and challenges for second balls, they “out-Houstoned” the Dynamo.

Houston plays direct, safe and conservative. They let the other guys make the mistakes and then look to pounce. But United was better at limiting the booboos. Houston center back Bobby Boswell got dragged out of position on the goal, for instance, and then got caught ball watching as DeLeon crashed in uncontested.

Meanwhile, Houston forced ball after ball down the center, mostly with no joy.

Second half looked like a different match. With United increasingly knackered, the Dynamo finally found the flanks. They got balls wide to Mac Kandji, Oscar Boniek Garcia or Bruin. Fullbacks Kofi Sarkodi and Corey Ashe found the wide, advanced spaces, too.

That was the game.

Packaged for take-away

  • Houston ends its first campaign at BBVA Compass Stadium undefeated at their new ground. Going back to the Robertson Stadium days, the Dynamo are unbeaten in 30 straight matches in all competitions.
  • Sarkodi, Houston’s right back, is growing into the playoffs. He was excellent Sunday.
  • Boswell had the defensive play of the match, heading Rafael Augusto’s shot off the line in the 65th minute.
  • Houston is not getting a lot from right-sided attacker Oscar Boniek Garcia in the playoffs. He’s not bad, but nothing special so far in the post-season.
  • In his defense, Boniek Garcia did provide some late inspiration with hustle-bustle. When you’re not doing much else, you can always bounce in spirited effort.
  • Joe Willis, in United goal for the suspended Hamid, did everything he needed to do. He could do nothing on any of the Dynamo goals, contributed a couple of big saves and handled all the crosses within reach with sure hands and plenty of composure.
  • Willis’ best moment came 77 minutes in, as he pawed away Sarkodi’s volley from close range.

Ex-Liverpool CEO shares biting story of Suarez transfer

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Ian Ayre’s got jokes.

The former Liverpool CEO lifted the lid on some transfer stories during a Merseyside lecture this week.

Of note, Ayre admitted that the club thought Dele Alli demanded too much given what he had produced when the Reds has the chance to sign him as a 16-year-old, and said that Liverpool could’ve landed Alexis Sanchez but the player wanted to live in London (“We couldn’t move the football club to London, unfortunately,” he quipped).

The best part relayed by Sky Sports had to do with Luis Suarez, and shows the relentless nature of the transfer market. Clearly Barcelona had interest in Suarez before the fiery striker bit Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, because, well…

“I remember the sporting director of Barcelona calling me during that game, immediately as Suarez bit the player, and he said to me ‘my friend, he’s bitten somebody, how can this be the price?’ I said ‘he’d already bitten somebody when you first bid!'”

We’re sure there’s a certain amount of storytelling in there, but undoubtedly some truth.

Given Barca paid a reported $84 million for the striker, the asking price couldn’t have started that much higher.

De Rossi admits desire to beat young teammates with bat

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Daniele De Rossi doesn’t like the modern world.

Okay, okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the Roma legend dropped a funny quote when discussing the differences between young players these days and those when he began his career.

A one-club man, the 33-year-old De Rossi has played in 556 matches for i Lupi and admits that he probably flummoxed veterans when he began his career because that’s the cyclical nature of adulthood.

From Italia Football:

“When we started out, it was all different, that was 20 years ago. Now a 20-year-old will get into the first team and have more Instagram followers than Messi. When I was young, the older players would say ‘it wasn’t like in my day’ – that’s life and it always will be.

“Mind you, some of them irritate me too. When I see them do live Instagram videos from inside the locker room before a game, I’d like to take a baseball bat to their teeth… But they’re 18 years old and in 20 years’ time they will find themselves complaining about the youth of today.”

Mmmm, tastes like ash and hickory.

It’s a safe bet that De Rossi isn’t wild about Stephan El Shaarawy’s hair, we imagine, but living legends generally get a little leeway with their comments in the media.

Plus, it sounds like he has the wisdom to understand the “why” and at least channel his angry into tackles.

Rooney ready to use experience to “get Man Utd over the line”

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An injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic has opened the door for one of England’s all-time greatest scorers, and Wayne Rooney is ready to seize it.

Manchester United and England’s living legend could play a key role in United’s run-in toward a Europa League title and a Top Four place in the Premier League.

Rooney has six goals and 10 assists in 32 matches this season, and his 1,937 minutes under Jose Mourinho are a product of both injury and the manager’s preferences.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

But Mourinho has claimed there’s a place for Rooney all year, and now the opportunity is here just in time for the Manchester Derby.

Rooney is buzzing, from Sky Sports:

“I feel I can contribute quality, composure, experience, and know-how, how to get over the line, whether it’s to win the league or finish top four or get to the final. That’s a lot of experience I can contribute to the team.”

Five Premier League titles and a Champions League medal certainly count for a lot, and the 31-year-old striker is still a productive PL player. The question, assuming Mourinho calls his number, is whether Rooney can roll back the years to be an out-and-out finisher for at least a few more weeks.

The inactivity could be a blessing for Rooney, he says:

“Everyone mentions that age, I’m 31, not an old person. Of course, I’ve played a lot of games. … Who knows, not playing so many games this season might benefit me.”

Totti out to ‘destroy’ Lazio in what could be his last derby

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MILAN (AP) Roma great Francesco Totti is out to “destroy” Lazio in what could be his last derby.

Totti’s contract runs out at the end of the season and the 40-year-old forward is likely to retire and move upstairs into a director’s role at the club where he has spent his entire career.

“It’s a different match to all the others,” Totti said. “It’s a team you always try to destroy on the field but with the maximum respect.

“For the city, for the curva, for the fans, you always try to give 101 percent. It’s a match you always want to win.”

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Roma won the last derby 3-2 last month but still lost to Lazio in the two-legged Italian Cup semifinals. Totti played less than 10 minutes in each match.

That semifinal defeat still hurts Roma and its fans, which are likely to fill the Stadio Olimpico again after ending a 14-month protest following the removal of deeply unpopular security barriers.

“It will be like all the other derbies, a must-win match,” Totti said. “It’s important because we all remember how the last one finished. We have to get our revenge.”

Sunday’s match is also crucial for the battle for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the group stage of the Champions League.

Roma is currently second, four points ahead of Napoli, which visits Inter Milan on Sunday. The team which finishes third has to go into a playoff for Europe’s premier club competition.

Roma has a more difficult run-in than Napoli. After the derby, it next faces AC Milan and Juventus before ending its season against Chievo Verona and Genoa. Napoli plays Cagliari, Torino, Fiorentina and Sampdoria.

[ MORE: Henry, Aguero on playing for Pep ]

“It will be a very important derby for the standings and we will try everything to have a great game to bring home the three points,” Totti said. “We are going through this battle for second serenely and calmly, also because now we have a four-point advantage on them.

“There are only a few matches left until the end of the season, even if three out of five are very difficult on paper. We will try everything to finish second.”

Lazio is fourth, seven points behind Napoli.

Totti has been playing for Roma for 25 years – remarkably more than 28 percent of the club’s existence – since making his debut in the final stages of a 2-0 win at Brescia on March 28, 1993.

Totti, who also won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, could have won more than the solitary Serie A title, two Italian Cups and two national Super Cups he claimed with Roma, but he rejected offers of more money and glory to remain with his childhood club.

His face adorns murals and posters across Italy’s capital, where he is loved by Roma fans and respected by supporters of Lazio, despite his antics against them.

Totti has scored 11 times against Lazio and often celebrates these extra-special goals with T-shirts made for the occasion. One famously said, “I have purged you again,” while he revealed another reading simply “Game Over” after a victory in May 2015.

He hit the headlines in January of that year when he scored the second of two goals against Lazio and, in a pre-planned celebration for becoming the all-time leading scorer in the derby, grabbed his phone off Roma’s goalkeeping coach and took a selfie under the Curva Sud with thousands of adoring fans in the background.

In the Eternal City, Totti is Roma’s eternal leader – first made captain in 1998 when he was only 22.

Nike alluded to his “King of Rome” nickname at a promotional event on Wednesday to unveil new gold-colored boots to mark the Roma captain’s 25 years at the club.

Totti, who was greeted by about 200 chanting fans, was instructed to sit on a throne with the steps leading up to it bearing the names of the seven kings of ancient Rome, with his name placed on the final step.

“I have nothing to do with these kings,” Totti said. “I prefer to be judged than to judge.”