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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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FA Cup: Kane’s hat trick sees Spurs sail past Fulham, into QF

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 19:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur (R) celebrates with team mate Dele Alli as he scores their third goal and completes his hat trick during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur at Craven Cottage on February 19, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Tottenham Hotspur have done plenty to frustrate and confound their supporters in recent weeks — their Premier League title race has all but officially gone, and they’ve got some work to do in their Europa League round-of-32 tie — but Mauricio Pochettino‘s side is now just 270 minutes from lifting the club’s first major trophy since 2008.

[ MORE: FA Cup roundup — Premier League sides underwhelm in 5th round ]

A 3-0 victory away to Championship side Fulham on Sunday sends Tottenham through to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, where they’ll join the likes of Lincoln City and Millwall — as well as PL leaders Chelsea, and possibly Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United.

Harry Kane bagged all three of Spurs goals — the first two of which were created courtesy of delightful wide service from Christian Eriksen — the first a simple tap-in from six yards out in the 16th minute; the second a slightly more difficult, waist-high redirect from inside 10 yards not long after halftime. The hat trick was complete on 73 minutes, when Kane raced in behind the Fulham defense and fired past Marcus Bettinelli at the near post.

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

Elsewhere in the FA Cup

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield Town 0-0 Manchester City
Middlesbrough 3-2 Oxford United
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea

Sunday’s FA Cup schedule

Blackburn Rovers vs. Manchester United — 11:15 a.m. ET

Monday’s FA Cup schedule

Sutton United vs. Arsenal — 2:55 p.m. ET

VIDEO: David Villa given red card via MLS’s video replay

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David Villa was sent off following the use of video replay during New York City FC’s preseason game against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Villa, the reigning league MVP, was initially shown a yellow card by referee Nima Saghafi for a slap to the face of Dynamo defender A.J. DeLaGarza (the incident begins at the 36:50 mark of the above video). Following a review of video evidence (Video Assistant Referee — VAR), which MLS has implemented on a trial basis this preseason, Saghafi correctly changed Villa’s booking to a straight red card.

The biggest stumbling block for video replay in soccer is, undoubtedly, the length of time each video-assisted decision would require to be made. From the moment Villa made contact with DeLaGarza’s face, to the time Saghafi re-enters the field of play and shows Villa his red card, 2 minutes and 33 seconds has passed. From the initial incident to the restart of play, 3 minutes and 43 seconds.

[ MORE: U.S. U-20s lose to 10-man Panama in opener of WCQ ]

That might not sound like a ton of time, but when you consider that’s time that will have to be added on in stoppage time, the typical three or four minutes quickly balloons to seven or eight minutes. The fact that a referee’s decision was corrected is a huge win, and proof that the use of video replay can and will help referee’s make game-altering decisions; the process by which that happens, though, still needs expedited.

Update: This post previously misidentified Villa as the first MLS player to be sent off via the use of VAR. Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara was shown a red card via the use of VAR earlier in the preseason.

Ranieri criticizes Leicester for lacking “desire and heart”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City looks dejected during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Millwall and Leicester City at The Den on February 18, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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LONDON (AP) Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri criticized his players for lacking “desire and heart” in a 1-0 loss at third-tier Millwall in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday, the latest setback for the stuttering English champion.

[ MORE: FA Cup roundup — Premier League sides underwhelm in 5th round ]

Leicester, which is one point above the relegation zone in a woeful defense of its Premier League title, is without a victory in its last eight matches.

Millwall played most of the second half with 10 men and won thanks to a 90th-minute goal.

“I want to speak again with the players and say we have to fight every match,” an animated Ranieri said. “Who wants to fight? Tell me. I need the soldiers, I need the gladiators.

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

“It is strange because last season we won for this, to be more determined than the opponent and play with more heart than the opponent. We could also lose but we would fight every match. I want to see this, the fight until the end.”

Leicester’s next match is against Sevilla in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday.

FOLLOW LIVE: Spurs, Man United away in FA Cup 5th round

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates after scoring his third and his sides third goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-rounders served up the biggest Cupset of them all — fifth-division side Lincoln City knocking off Burnley of the Premier League — as well as two moderately shocking results — Leicester City losing to 10-man Millwall (League One) and Manchester City drawing 0-0 with Huddersfield Town (Championship).

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Sunday’s FA Cup 5th-rounders ]

On Sunday, two more of the PL’s big boys hope to avoid upsets and reach the quarterfinals of the 2016-17 tournament. First up, Tottenham Hotspur visit Fulham’s Craven Cottage in a renewed London derby, followed by Manchester United’s trip to Blackburn Rovers’ Ewood Park. For live scores and updates, hit the above link, or click right here.

Saturday’s FA Cup results

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield 0-0 Manchester City
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Middlesbrough 3-0 Oxford United
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea

Sunday’s FA Cup schedule

Fulham vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 9 a.m. ET
Blackburn Rovers vs. Manchester United — 11:15 a.m. ET

Monday’s FA Cup schedule

Sutton United vs. Arsenal — 2:55 p.m. ET