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MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at D.C. United

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If having a little hill to climb seems somehow discouraging for D.C. United faithful, consider this: it’s only a hill, and not the mountain of a deficit to overcome that we see in the day’s other conference final.

D.C. United fell in Houston, 3-1, and must now make up the two goals when the teams meet at historic RFK Stadium in Sunday’s Eastern Conference final second-leg.

It won’t be easy against a visiting Houston Dynamo side (and its wily manager) that knows, historically speaking better than any MLS side yet, how to piece together a playoff result on the road.

One team will emerge. Either Houston will claim the day and appear in its second consecutive MLS Cup final or D.C. United will overcome the two-goal deficit and host MLS Cup in two weeks.

MLS Eastern Conference finals

Sunday’s Kickoff: RFK Stadium, 4 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network

(Official league preview is here)

On D.C. United

  • United knows plenty about sitting behind that dreaded playoff 8 ball. They needed a mighty effort, minus their top player, just to make the 17th MLS post-season “tournament.”  Then they went into New York a week and a half back needing a victory at some point, whether in regulation play, extra time or penalty kicks. Rookie Nick DeLeon supplied the moment, claiming the game-winner in one of Major League Soccer’s most memorable playoffs to date.
  • It certainly looks like D.C. United’s top attacker, out since early August, will make an appearance at some point. Dwayne De Rosario, the 2011 league MVP, seems ready.
  • United is 12-1-5 at RFK this year, with a plus-20 goal difference. That’s a number that can inspire some confidence, for sure. The trick is that a close win won’t do. A two-goal victory will get the series into a 30-minute extra time.
  • Both teams had a full week to recover and get their legs back, which surely helped coach Ben Olsen’s side; his players looked absolutely spent in the final 30 minutes of last week’s loss to Houston. In fact, some of the mental errors that led to goals can probably be traced to a side that was as emotionally spent as physically taxed.
  • Still no Andy Najar, who is suspended. But the bigger loss would be left-sided attacker Chris Pontius, who struggled through a few minutes last week but may have ultimately done further damage to that groin injury.
  • Marcelo Saragosa (knee) is also a concern. Lately he has paired effectively with Perry Kitchen as dual holding midfielders. Spirited center back Brandon McDonald seems ready after some health concern on his part.
  • What Olsen says about his team’s state of mind: “We’re confident in the way we play at home. All year we have been aggressive and gone after teams and scored goals at home. So that part doesn’t necessarily need to change. We need to score goals, though, so there is a little bit of a different mind-set going into this game. It’s still a soccer game and we’re still confident in our ability to win games by two goals at home.”
  • Bill Hamid is back off suspension and available for presumed selection over Joe Willis in goal.
  • Time for long-time under-delivering Designated Player Branko Boskovic to stand and be counted. Period.

On the Houston Dynamo

  • Houston is suddenly limping along, almost as badly as D.C. United. Ricardo Clark missed last week’s match and Adam Moffat left early and looks doubtful for this one. If Clark cannot perform (he remains questionable), Houston is without its top pair of central midfielders.

(MORE: Houston’s central pair hoping for health)

  • Coach Dominic Kinnear’s team may also be without one of its starting center backs, Jermaine Taylor. Canadian international Andrew Hainault does not represent much drop-off, however, so that blow can be mitigated. Similarly, versatile attacker Calen Carr is beat up, but the Dynamo have depth at striker.
  • English veteran Giles Barnes is suddenly a great asset, given the sudden array of ailments in orange.
  • In terms of playing on the road, Houston was among the worst playoff teams, with a 3-9-5 record and a minus-12 goal difference. But … Kinnear’s team did go into Chicago and claim victory in an playoff elimination match. And the men in orange did go into Livestrong (carrying a two-goal margin) and survive. There are memories of last year’s playoff triumphs in Philadelphia and Kansas City to brace the belief.
  • For better or worse, this series will be defined in part by one massive moment and how it could have potentially changed the series. Read about the Hainault decision here and here.
  • Former U.S. national team striker Brian Ching has yet to play much of a role in the playoffs in what appears to be his final season. And speaking of “not playing much of a role,” although in a very different way, it’s time for winger Oscar Boniek Garcia to appear. On the bigger field at RFK (as opposed to the smaller one at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston) he should have room to stretch himself and take on defenders. They’ll need it.
  • Tally Hall, in goal, has been everything Houston has needed. He has allowed just five goals in eight post-season matches over two years.

(MORE: Three Good Questions for Tally Hall)

Bottom line:

Houston cannot afford to sit back the way it did two weeks ago in a second round closer against Sporting Kansas City; there’s no reason to believe the Black and Red will squander as many wonderful chances Sunday as Kansas City did in that conference semifinal.

They’ll need lots of help in midfield possession from Brad Davis; his free kick and corner kick specialty will be of little use if they cannot hold the ball enough to move into attacking positions.

On the other hand, can the home team generate enough offensive push minus a full-strength De Rosario and quite possibly without the inspirational Pontius, too? In fact, without those two (or, those two at full strength, at least) and Najar, United could be without its top three attackers.

Unfortunately, it might all come down to injuries. If Clark can play (and manage to be his usual rangy self) Houston might just win this so-called war of attrition. Or, if De Rosario can play a big enough role, or if Pontius can get on the field for a while, that might just be enough for United to manage the deficit.

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Hull City promoted, but Steve Bruce still considering future

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 28:  Steve Bruce, manager of Hull City lifts the trophy after victory in the Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final match between Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley Stadium on May 28, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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Steve Bruce saw Hull City go down to the Championship, and pulled the Tigers right back up the Premier League.

Hull won promotion at the first time of asking after defeating Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 on Saturday, but Bruce wants to see stability at the KC Stadium.

[ USMNT-BOLIVIA: Recap3 things | Player ratings ]

The club remains up for sale after owner Assem Allam saw his request to change the team name to Hull Tigers denied by the English Football Association.

From the BBC:

“I’ll sit down with the owners. It’s not often you walk away from the Premier League – that’s where I want to manage,” Bruce told BBC Radio 5 live.

“But I have to be given certain assurances that we’re all moving in the right direction.

“I keep hearing too many stories that there’s a takeover imminent. We’ll see what develops,” added the 55-year-old.

The longtime Manchester United back has been around the managerial block a few times, and it’d be nice to see him stay at Hull for the long term. He’s led the Tigers into the Premier League on two occasions, and is — seriously — the seventh longest tenured manager in the Football League. He would enter the Premier League as the second-longest serving manager, to Arsene Wenger.

BREAKING: Olympiacos striker Pulido kidnapped in Mexico

DRENTHE, NETHERLANDS - JULY 29:  Alan Pulido of Olympiacos in action during the pre season friendly match between FC Twente and Olympiacos Piraeus held at Sportpark Veenoord on July 29, 2015 in New Amsterdam and Veenoord, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
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Terrifying news out of Mexico, where 25-year-old Mexican national team striker Alan Pulido has reportedly been kidnapped in his hometown.

Pulido, 25, has four goals in six caps for El Tri and moved to Olympiacos in 2015, where he scored five goals in eight matches.

[ USMNT-BOLIVIA: Recap3 things | Player ratings ]

Various reports claim that Pulido and his girlfriend were taken after masked gunmen cut off the vehicle in which they were riding, and only released the girlfriend.

From the Associated Press:

The official says the 25-year-old player was kidnapped near his hometown of Ciudad Victoria on Sunday after leaving a party.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case under investigation.

Klinsmann hails Zardes’ character; USMNT forward likes his first touch

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Gyasi Zardes #9 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Gyasi Zardes’ remarkable rise from Cal State Bakersfield to fixture on the United States men’s national team is one of the better stories in recent team history.

The USMNT attacker nabbed his fourth and fifth international goals in Saturday night’s blowout of Bolivia, and he’s up to 25 caps since making his debut in Jan. 2015.

[ USMNT-BOLIVIA: Recap3 things | Player ratings ]

Jurgen Klinsmann deserves some credit for putting the L.A. Galaxy on the field almost religiously as Zardes works on so many facets of his game. He’s improved dramatically in positioning, runs and 1v1 battles and reportedly soaks up information like a sponge. Klinsmann loves the guy, and for good reason.

It’s also important to note that, despite his ever-present status, Zardes remains 24 and a work in progress.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“Sometimes it’s perfect, and maybe the next day it’s not so good, but it’s totally fine – because every player has his strengths and weaknesses. So as long as they keep on working on those weaknesses and getting them better and better, it’s totally fine. He’s very straight in his thought process in front of the goal. He knows exactly what he wants to do.

“You have to follow your first thought. That’s crucial. If you start to have two thoughts, then you’re going to get messed up. He was very calm, putting two goals in there, and the whole game he was involved. It’s coming along.”

Zardes’ club goal production dropped last year from roughly a goal every other game to one every three, but he’s been growing as a playmaer and this season has four goals and four assists through 11 matches.

I really like Zardes — see my post calling for his USMNT call-up in 2014 — but let me say one negative thing about his bristling at first touch questions and saying, “To be honest, me personally, I think I have a good first touch”: I’m glad he feels that way and his woes may be a bit overblown, but calling his Saturday goals first touch goals is accurate but kind of hilarious.

The criticism of his first touch, which his betrayed him on major scoring chances in each of the last two USMNT matches, has nothing to do when his first touch is directed at goal. On his brace last night, the first was a good finish where he had to work it past the keeper and the second was a plant foot shot. Both, in fact, were shots.

Those count as your first touch on the ball, but when we discuss first touch it’s about taking the ball off a pass or dribble and possessing it for a purpose. Of course he was right to shoot, but it’s cool if your eyes rolled pretty hard in reading his comments.

Koeman: Manchester United “don’t deserve a medal” for treatment of Louis van Gaal

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20:  Louis van Gaal, Manager of  Manchester United talks to Ronald Koeman, Manager of Southampton during the  Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester United at St Mary's Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Southampton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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When it comes to the firing of Louis Van Gaal, his countryman has his back.

Southampton boss Ronald Koeman doesn’t like the way Manchester United handled LVG’s fate with the team, firing him within hours of the Red Devils winning the FA Cup.

Like many, Koeman doesn’t buy that the LVG to Jose Mourinho transition happened in a week.

[ MORE: Early and (purposefully) absurd 2016-17 PL predictions ]

Given the gossip mill since Chelsea fired Mourinho in January, that’s not a hard thing to buy, and Koeman is angry that LVG was kept out of the loop. Reports claim that Van Gaal had drawn-up plans for 2016-17 with him on the day he was let go.

From Sky Sports:

“If Louis was not told about getting the sack until after the FA Cup final, then Manchester United as a club don’t deserve a medal for the way they treated him.

“If you know a little bit about the business at the highest level in football, then you know that these kind of deals are not done overnight.”

Koeman hedges his words with conditionals, but there’s little doubt what he means. Managers generally stand together when it comes to dismissals, but it’s nice to see someone stand up for LVG’s treatment (whether he deserved to be canned or not).