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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.

BONUS: Sponsor preview

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Messi looking to end El Clasico scoring drought

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during a training session ahead of their La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid on December 2, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) There couldn’t be a better time for Lionel Messi to end his scoring drought than in the clasico against Real Madrid.

With Barcelona struggling and desperately needing a victory to stay close to its rival in the Spanish league, Messi could help turn things around on Saturday if he can find the net again after five scoreless games against Madrid.

Barcelona enters the home game at Camp Nou six points behind Madrid, and another setback could leave it in a difficult position to fight for a third straight league title.

[ MORE: Chapecoense crash survivor could play again ]

Messi hasn’t played badly in recent clasicos, but his last goal against Madrid came almost three years ago when he had a hat trick in a 4-3 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

He hasn’t scored in the four games since, not even in the stunning 4-0 win at the Bernabeu last season, when Messi came off the bench in the second half after a long injury layoff. Barcelona has won two of the last five games against Madrid, but it’s been 400 minutes since Messi last scored.

Since that hat trick in March 2014, Cristiano Ronaldo has attracted most of the headlines in the clasico, having scored three times, including the late game-winner at Camp Nou last season that ended Barcelona’s record 39-game unbeaten streak.

“They’re two exceptional players,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “Cristiano is doing exceptional, incredible things, I hope he carries on like this.”

Messi remains the all-time leading scorer in the clasico with 21 in 32 matches, but at Camp Nou it’s been Ronaldo who has thrived the most.

He has 10 goals in 12 games in Barcelona, including five in the last five matches and eight in the last nine. He failed to find the net only in four of those 12 games. Messi netted only five times in those same 12 encounters in Catalonia.

Ronaldo has scored in each of the last two league games between them at the Camp Nou. He has 16 goals in 25 clasicos, behind only Messi (21) and Alfredo Di Stefano (18).

[ MORE: Birnbaum spurns Europe for DC United ]

Messi has 15 goals in the 25 clasicos in which he and Ronaldo faced each other.

Ronaldo, who recently netted a hat trick in the Madrid derby against Atletico, is the Spanish league leading scorer with 10, one more than Messi. Ronaldo has eight goals in his last four league matches.

Messi also has been playing well recently, having scored five goals in his last four games. He has netted 16 in his last 11 matches.

Barcelona is coming off three consecutive draws, two in the league and one in the Copa del Rey.

Madrid is enjoying a 32-game unbeaten streak under Zidane.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Premier League Preview: West Ham United vs. Arsenal

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09: Francis Coquelin of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at the Boleyn Ground on April 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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  • Arsenal unbeaten at WH since 2006
  • Irons took four of six points last season
  • Arsenal leads all-time 60W-39D-34L

Arsenal continues its chase of a Premier League title with a tricky visit to West Ham United on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. EDT on NBC, and online at NBCSports.com).

Arsene Wenger‘s bunch opens the weekend three points behind first-place Chelsea, two back of Liverpool and Manchester City. A win could push them a space or two up the table with Chelsea hosting Man City.

[ MORE: Guardiola, Conte talk match-up ]

The Olympic Stadium hasn’t been kind to West Ham this year, but perhaps this is just the game to flip the script on both their season and rivalry with Arsenal. The Irons had a good run versus the Gunners last season, but it’s been a while since they trumped Arsenal at home.

There are questions as to who will start up top. Perhaps it’ll be Simone Zaza, with Andy Carroll and Andre Ayew both facing fitness concerns.

Arsenal have injuries, too, with Santi Cazorla now lost for three months and Mathieu Debuchy suffering a setback as well.

What they’re saying

Arsene Wenger on the Olympic Stadium: “Before, we knew exactly what was expected of us at West Ham. I preferred the first version of the West Ham stadium, when it was very tight. When they built a new stand the distances were a bit bigger and that probably made the first one the most intimidating stadium I knew. It’s a bit like when we moved to the Emirates. You feel a bit like you’re playing on neutral ground for a while. After that, the best way to prepare is just to focus on what we do and focus in a very strong way.”

Slaven Bilic on whether West Ham needs to be worried: “It depends how you look at it. We’re in a position we don’t want to be in. OK, it’s not after 26 games but it’s not after two or three. It’s a considerable amount, so it makes us think about it. On the other hand, with three points that are there week in, week out, we can climb up the table a lot. It’s that kind of a league – even a point can help. It’s very, very tight from mid-table to the position that we are. There’s no time to panic. But we can’t be relaxed and say it’s going to come, because it won’t just come like that.”

Prediction

Arsenal hasn’t lost a Premier League match since August, though its weakened lineup did suffer an EFL Cup setback to Southampton at midweek. West Ham’s been improving but went with a strong cast in its EFL Cup loss at Manchester United. The edge goes to the Gunners, especially given West Ham’s home uncertainty. Arsenal, 3-1.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Top 5 Premier League Storylines for a big weekend

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09: Andy Carroll of West Ham United scores his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at the Boleyn Ground on April 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Time flies when you’re having fun. So goes the old maxim, but time may rocket when you’re facing a relegation fight, too.

The Premier League is more than one-third of the way through its season, and this weekend finds its clubs critical match-ups up-and-down the table.

[ MORE: New Spurs deal for Kane ]

Man City and Chelsea jockey for position at the top of the table, while Everton and Manchester United could dash each other’s Top Four hopes.

As for the relegation scraps, one involves last season’s champs. All make our top storylines for this PL weekend.

Pep vs. Conte, Round 1

Manchester City vs. Chelsea — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday, NBCSN and NBCSports.com.

We’ll know before the mid-morning matches kickoff whether there will be a new Premier League leader after this weekend. Chelsea hopes the answer is no, that their boss Antonio Conte will win his first tete-a-tete with fellow tactical wizard Pep Guardiola. City has had a tough go of it, relatively speaking, at home this season. Three wins and three draws give City a lesser share of the points at home than away from the Etihad Stadium.

Can a London rivalry help West Ham’s home woes?

West Ham United vs. Arsenal — 12:30 p.m. EDT Saturday, NBC and NBCSports.com.

Fits and starts was not supposed to be the way for West Ham this season, but the presumed contenders remain just a point ahead of the drop zone. The Irons have just two wins from six home PL matches this season, but could there possibly be a better way to create good vibes at the Olympic Stadium than a triumph over the Gooners? West Ham can’t make its way into the Top Four mix, but it can dent Arsenal’s title hopes.

Separation day for Toffees, Red Devils

Everton vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. EDT Sunday, NBCSN and NBCSports.com.

One point separates Ronald Koeman‘s Toffees and Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, and it’d be fair to say both thought this battle would be higher up the table as recently as one month ago. United has a one point edge on Everton for sixth, and the loser could find itself as far as 7 or 8 points off the Top Five pace.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05: Leighton Baines of Everton competes with Juan Mata of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on October 5, 2014 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Juan Mata and Leighton Baines (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images).

Relegation scrap at the Riverside Stadium

Middlesbrough vs. Hull City — 3 p.m. EDT Monday, NBCSN and NBCSports.com.

The Tigers have managed just 4 of their 11 points away from the KC Stadium, but can guarantee a trip out of the drop zone by managing a win (though a draw could do the trick if Palace falls to Southampton). Aitor Karanka‘s hosts had much higher aims than a relegation battle, perhaps naively, and will be feeling the heat of the drop with anything but three points on Saturday. A large part of their struggles have come at home, which will be music to Hull’s ears; Boro is 1W-1D-4L at home.

Sunderland aims to make relegation fears deeper for champions

Sunderland vs. Leicester City — 10 a.m. EDT Saturday, Premier League Xtra Time and NBCSports.com.

The Premier League champions have one point away from home this season. That’s bad, as is their awful standing in 14th. The Foxes are two points clear of the drop, five points ahead of the last-place Black Cats. David Moyes‘ hosts have been playing much better as of late, beating Hull and Bournemouth before falling to Liverpool. That Hull win is their lone victory at the Stadium of Light this season, but Sunderland can take comfort in the fact that Leicester has four losses and a draw in matches preceding a Champions League fixture.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 14

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Week 14 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 14 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Stoke City 2-0 Burnley – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 3-1 Swansea City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 0-2 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Man City 1-2 Chelsea – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

West Ham 2-3 Arsenal – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

West Brom 1-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-2 Liverpool – (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 1-0 Hull City – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Everton 2-2 Man United – (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Sunderland 2-1 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]