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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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Sunderland confirm resignation of manager Dick Advocaat

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 03:  Dick Advocaat manager of Sunderland looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and West Ham United at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Steve Welsh/Getty Images)
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With rumors swirling of his resignation, Sunderland have confirmed this morning that Dick Advocaat has left his post as Sunderland manager with zero financial compensation despite the protests of the chairman.

Advocaat came on in March as an emergency signing, successfully saving Sunderland from relegation with a solid run of form to finish the season. The 68-year-old Dutchman pondered at length this summer if he wished to continue on, with his wife reportedly urging him to step down, but he chose to continue on with the new season after successful persuasion from the front office.

Unfortunately, things have not gone as planned, with Sunderland sitting 19th in the table, only above Newcastle on goal differential and without a single win on the season. They’ve conceded a whopping 18 goals so far this season through eight league matches.

“I have made the decision to go after only eight games as I felt it was important to give everyone time turn things around – like we did last year,” Advocaat said upon his departure. “I am thankful to the chairman for understanding my feelings and I remain on good terms with everyone at the club.

“I wish Ellis [Short], Lee [Congerton], all of the staff, players and of course the supporters, who made me feel so welcome here, the very best of luck for the rest of the season. I have some wonderful memories to take with me and I hope I will return to see everybody again in the future.”

“I am truly saddened by Dick’s decision,” chairman Ellis Short said, “but I respect him for his honesty and for doing what he feels is right for the club. He is a man of integrity and a true football person. He was hugely respectful of the club in taking this decision and he acted 100% in our best interests. It is also testament to his character that he has forgone any kind of a financial settlement, something which is very unusual in football.”

Meanwhile, the Black Cats have dipped into what is becoming a perennial cycle, making a managerial change for the fourth time in the last four seasons.

Rumors are swirling that a host of experienced Premier League managers could be up for the job, including the currently unemployed Sam Allardyce and Harry Redknapp. Other linked names include former Leicester manager Nigel Pearson and current Burnley boss Sean Dyche.

Sepp Blatter’s daughter slams media for ruining her father’s reputation

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Sepp Blatter’s daughter blames the media, not her father, for Sepp’s downfall as the head of FIFA and believes he will not step down until the February congress as he initially announced.

“The media has ruined his reputation,” Corinne Blatter told Swiss newspaper Blick. “Why are they picking on him? What did he do to them? … It’s not just envy. It’s hatred.”

A host of major sponsors, including Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Visa called for Blatter’s immediate resignation as president of FIFA, to which the 79-year-old swiftly rejected. This all came after Blatter was called in by Swiss authorities for questioning after the opening of an investigation surrounding corporate mismanagement charges.

“I was afraid that they now take him away in handcuffs,” Corinne said. “He told me, ‘I must be dreaming.’ A federal policeman assured me that he could after hearing home.”

Blick pressed Corinne on many issues, all of which she defender her father. She refused to comment on many that had to do with the investigation, but did give us this gem when asked how Sepp likes to spend his money.

“He buys shoes and travel bags. He has worked 40 years. His life is modest, without any extravagance. He doesn’t play golf or go sailing.”

Shoes and handbags. What an image.