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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CONMEBOL WCQ: Venezuela, Bolivia teetering on elimination

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CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying is always a challenge, and this World Cup cycle is no different.

With six teams currently separated by a mere five points under leaders Brazil, everything is left to play for as Round 14 hits South America.

[ MORE: Messi could face suspension from CONMEBOL ]

Here’s a look at what’s on the docket for Tuesday:

Bolivia vs. Argentina — 4 p.m. EDT

It wasn’t pretty at all, but La Albiceleste picked up a crucial three points against Chile, which could produce a morale lift for Argentina given their past struggles against the reigning Copa America holders.

Lionel Messi’s actions from the match could harm the Albiceleste though, with the Barcelona man reportedly facing sanctions from CONMEBOL for verbally abusing a linesman.

Meanwhile, Bolivia is in desperate need of a win in La Paz, and anything but three points could potentially end La Verde’s hopes of reaching Russia 2018.

Ecuador vs. Colombia — 5 p.m. EDT

It took a long time for Colombia to crack the Bolivia backline on Thursday but a late run from Juan Cuadrado helped set up the eventual winner from James Rodriguez, and kept Los Cafeteros in the top four.

Ecuador didn’t have the same fortunes though four days ago after falling to a very game Paraguay side. La Tricolor have gone winless in three of its last four World Cup qualifiers, leaving Gustavo Quinteros side with little margin of error against the Colombians.

Chile vs. Venezuela — 6 p.m. EDT

Chile’s qualifying struggles continued on Thursday after falling to La Albiceleste in a closely-contested match. Arturo Vidal’s six goals leave the Bayern Munich midfielder third in all of CONMEBOL this campaign, but the Chileans still sit on the outside looking in at the moment and in sixth place.

Venezuela is teetering on the edge of elimination, and a loss against Chile would all but seal their fate of missing out the World Cup. After reaching the quarterfinals at last summer’s Copa America Centenario, La Vinotinto have failed to replicate that form this qualifying campaign with just one win to show.

Top scorer Josef Martinez is no longer with Venezuela after suffering an injury in Thursday’s 2-2 draw against Peru, creating a major void in the side’s attack.

Brazil vs. Paraguay — 8:45 p.m. EDT

The Selecao continue to score at a lightning pace this qualifying campaign with 32 goals in the first 13 rounds of play. Despite conceding early to Uruguay on Thursday, Brazil responded emphatically with four goals, and most notably Paulinho‘s hat-trick.

Elsewhere, Paraguay kept itself within striking distance of the top five after its 2-1 win over Ecuador. The side is just two points behind fifth place Ecuador.

Peru vs. Uruguay — 10:15 p.m. EDT

Los Incas have not reached a World Cup since 1982, and although the team is just five points behind fifth, they need to pick up victories. Ricardo Gareca will be pleased with his side’s resiliency against Venezuela on Thursday, but more draws simply won’t do with only four rounds remaining after Tuesday.

Uruguay still sits in a solid second position after Thursday’s slip up against Brazil but another defeat could be potentially disastrous for La Celeste, who are just three points above sixth place Chile. However, Edinson Cavani’s nine goals leads all of CONMEBOL and Peru has allowed the third-most goals this campaign (22).

Ugly scene forces Ivory Coast-Senegal match to be abandoned

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Monday’s international friendly between Ivory Coast and Senegal turned out to be anything but that when the match was interrupted towards the tail end.

Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The fixture was abandoned with two minutes remaining in regulation after pitch invaders disrupted the the match by getting past security guards and began chasing after players from both sides.

The score was level at 1-1 in the 88th minute when the disruptions occurred, causing the referee to halt play at the Stade Sebastien Charlety in Paris.

One of the intruders even managed to tackle Senegalese defender Lamine Gassama (as shown in the picture to the right).

Liverpool’s Sadio Mane gave Senegal the lead minutes into the second stanza after he converted from the penalty spot, while Cyriac Gohi Bi leveled the score at one apiece just minutes later.

Messi could face CONMEBOL suspension for verbal abusing official

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Already facing some uncertainty with a depleted roster, Argentina could face a significantly greater challenge.

[ MORE: Aguero left out of Argentina starting XI vs. Bolivia ]

Barcelona star Lionel Messi could face suspension after reportedly verbally abusing linesman Marcelo Van Gasse during the second half of Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile.

UPDATED: Fox Sports Argentina is reporting that Messi will receive a two to four match suspension and will be effective for tomorrow’s match against Bolivia.

Messi was reported to CONMEBOL for yelling, “F*** off, your mother’s c***” at Van Gasse and refused to shake the official’s hand at the end of the match.

The officiating crew from the match didn’t initially include Messi’s rant in the post-match report, however, it was added on Monday and submitted to CONMEBOL.

The South American federation must now decide if and when it will punish Messi for his reported actions, and there is the potential that the world-class attacker could be suspended for Tuesday’s clash against Bolivia if the federation acts quickly.

There are several other scenarios though for CONMEBOL to action, including disregarding Messi’s verbal assault.

La Albiceleste currently sit third in World Cup qualifying on 22 points.

Arena speaks about USMNT turnaround, says “no secret formulas”

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It’s only been one competitive match since Bruce Arena regained control of the U.S. Men’s National Team and there’s already been a noticeable difference in form.

[ MORE: Three keys for the USMNT ahead of Panama clash ]

The former LA Galaxy manager wouldn’t have you believe that though following Friday night’s convincing 6-0 victory over Honduras in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

“It’s nothing I can write a book on,” Arena said about his team’s turnaround in form against Honduras. “You have a sense of your group, and you go about doing your business. There’s no secret formulas to this stuff. Work together, take ownership in what you’re doing, treat them like responsible professional athletes, and you get on with your business.

He added, “They want to be successful. They want to play in a World Cup. Is that a recipe for success? I don’t know. I’m sure Honduras wants to play in a World Cup too.”

Arena, who took over for Jurgen Klinsmann following the U.S.’ collapse during the first two matches of the Hexagonal, is unbeaten in his first three games in charge since getting his job back with the Stars and Stripes.

Although there has been a considerable turnaround in the way the USMNT has performed in the first three matches of 2017, Arena wouldn’t stoop to comparing his style to that of Klinsmann.

“I’m not doing anything differently,” he said. “I’m not taking a survey [of the players]. I know it’s different. We lose tomorrow, there will be articles written that, ‘This a—— is letting these guys run loose.'”

“I have spent no time on the past. There’s nothing I can do about it. I kind of have a sense about things, but there’s no point in me spending time investigating what went on in the past. The idea was to get it going the right way from the start.”

Arena’s next test with the U.S. will be on Tuesday when the Yanks travel to Panama City to take on Panama.