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.

LIVE, UCL – Sevilla vs. Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma

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Jose Mourinho has created a splash this morning by benching Paul Pogba despite utilizing a 3-man central midfield formation as Manchester United heads to Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg meeting.

Pogba was left out of Saturday’s win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup due to illness, but having made the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad, it seems his omission is instead due to tactical reasons. 21-year-old academy product Scott McTominay starts in Pogba’s place alongside Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, with the Frenchman on the bench among the substitutes.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The decision is surprising given Manchester United’s 16-point deficit in the Premier League table as they trail runaway favorites Manchester City, leaving the Champions League as the best competition remaining that the Red Devils have a shot to win.

Up front for Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez carries the creative load along with Juan Mata, with both supporting Romelu Lukaku at the striker position. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof continue to work as the central defensive partnership, while Antonio Valencia captains the side as full-back, mirrored by Ashley Young on the other edge.

In the other matchup, Roma heads to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, who finished 2nd in Group F three points behind Manchester City. The Ukranian side has only just returned from its winter break, with just a single game played since December 10th.

Roma, meanwhile, has pulled itself out of a rut just in time for the return of Champions League play, with three straight Serie A wins coming on the heels of a five-match winless run. They have scored eight goals over those three wins, with a pair of road clean sheets among the group. 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under is on fire over the win streak, scoring four goals over that span.


Today’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Sevilla vs. Manchester United – 2:45 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma – 2:45 p.m. ET

Reports: Mourinho to leave Paul Pogba out of Champions League lineup

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According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.

Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.

The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.

Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.

Leicester City settles Financial Fair Play dispute with Football League

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Leicester City will owe the Football League a reduced fine after coming to an agreement with the English lower-league governing body over a dispute regarding the 2013/14 season.

The Foxes, who won the Championship that season and were promoted to the Premier League, were handed an official breach of Financial Fair Play rules after accruing a loss exceeding the allowed $11 million amount. However, Leicester City argued that the deficit was due to “allowable” amounts regarding promotion and academy costs.

After talks between the two parties, the EFL announced Leicester City will owe a reduced amount of $4.33 million. They could have owed up to $18 million, the differential between the allowed amount and their actual posted loss of $20.8 million.

In an official release, the EFL announced, “The EFL acknowledges that [Leicester City] did not make any deliberate attempt to infringe the Rules or to deceive and that the dispute arose out of genuine differences of interpretation of the Rules between the parties.”

After initially receiving word of the notice back in 2014, the Foxes had legally challenged the fine, but that had been put on hold after litigation began in 2015 between the EFL and Queens Park Rangers for a similar dispute. Bournemouth was also fined after incurring a significant loss in their 2014/15 promotion season. Teams that breach rules but are not promoted face transfer bans, such as Fulham, Bolton, and Nottingham Forest received through the 2014/15 season.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.