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.

VIDEO: Napoli fans celebrate Juventus win

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It is safe to say Napoli’s fans were pretty happy with the 1-0 win their team secured at Juventus on Sunday.

Kalidou Koulibaly powered home a header in stoppage as Napoli moved just one point behind Juventus, who sit top of the Serie A table, with four games to go. The title race is well and truly on in Italy.

The scenes across Naples after the game were incredible and when the players arrived back at the airport at around 3 a.m. local time they were greeted by thousands of adoring fans.

Take a look at the video below. Wow.


Preview: Everton v. Newcastle

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  • Everton have won seven of their last eight games v Newcastle
  • Newcastle have won four PL games in a row
  • Wayne Rooney has more goals (15) against Newcastle than any other PL team

Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both setting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game

The Toffees sit in ninth, with Newcastle in 10th and just one point behind Everton with a game in hand. Rafael Benitez has been lauded for taking his newly-promoted side into the top 10 with defensive solidity, while Sam Allardyce has been lambasted for a defensive style of play despite getting Everton out of a relegation fight following his appointment back in November.

In team news Everton have Mason Holgate and Gylfi Sigurdsson out injured, while Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu but Islam Slimani could make his first start.


What they’re saying 

Sam Allardyce on the job Rafael Benitez has done at Newcastle: “From a difficult period they have managed to recover and get in the Premier League and they have turned it around. They have put together a run of games and we’ll see a better Newcastle than we saw up there [when Everton won 1-0 in December]. Rafa has progressed very well. He has always expressed his disappointment with not enough funds – we can all say we don’t have enough funds. What he has managed with the funds he has, particularly in the January months, has been excellent.”

Rafael Benitez on his Newcastle future: “I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time. I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.”

Prediction
Two teams who are very similar in terms of their style of play should see a bit of a stalemate take place at Goodison. 1-1 draw, which is a much better result for Newcastle and will pile more pressure on Big Sam.

Paul Pogba: “Transfers are not in my head”

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Paul Pogba has been discussing his future at Manchester United beyond this season.

The Frenchman delivered a stunning assist in United’s 2-1 win against Tottenham in the FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, with the midfielder now named Man of the Match in each of his last two games after plenty of speculation about his future at United in recent months.

Jose Mourinho left Pogba out of his starting lineup on multiple occasions, while Pep Guardiola claims he was offered to buy Pogba in January and speculation about him joining Paris Saint-Germain, going back to Juventus or heading to Real Madrid continue.

Speaking to French outlet Canal Football Club, Pogba had the following to say about his own future.

“Right now, I am at Manchester United and I am honestly only thinking about the present. Transfers are not in my head. We are in the [FA] Cup final and the World Cup is around the corner,” Pogba said.

Pogba also addressed the rumors regarding his relationship with Mourinho with reports stating that the duo do not get along and United’s manager is fed up with the Frenchman’s attitude off the pitch.

“I don’t have a problem with him, and I don’t think he has a problem with me,” Pogba said. “He’s the coach and he has to make choices. I am a player and I accept them. I have to answer on the pitch.”

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.