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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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MLS Snapshot: Portland Timbers 1-2 LA Galaxy (video)

CARSON, CA - MARCH 06:  Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates after scoring on a penalty kick in the second half of their MLS match against D.C. United at StubHub Center on March 6, 2016 in Carson, California. The Galaxy defeated United 4-1.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy are firing on all cylinders these days, having extended their winning streak to four games (six games unbeaten) with a 2-1 victory over the defending MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers at Providence Park on Saturday. The win sees Bruce Arena’s side move to within two and five points of the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield-leading Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, respectively (the two sides face one another later on Saturday), while the Timbers miss out on their chance to jump two places, up to fourth, in the West. Back to Saturday’s game, Robbie Keane bagged the 80th goal of his time in MLS (to go with 44 assists, bringing the Irishman’s impressive statline up to 124 goals and assists combined in 118 appearances), but it was Gyasi Zardes who scored the winner, just four minutes after Keane’s opener, in the 11th minute. As I’ve opined the last two weeks, the Galaxy are peaking at the right time of year, and the rest of the league should be terrified.

[ MORE: Previewing the rest of the MLS weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

7′ — Keane taps home at the far post — Keane won’t score many goals easier than this one. Giovani dos Santos teed him up, and fortunately for Keane, Nat Borchers dropped his controller as GdS hit his cross.

11′ — Zardes heads home after another defensive breakdown — Zardes has real striker’s instincts. Let’s let him put those to good use, like he did in making the late run to the back post for the Galaxy’s second goal.

41′ — Valentin rolls one past Rowe for 2-1 — The finish from Valentin is nice, but how about Darlington Nagbe with the skill and the vision inside the penalty area to created the space, time and chance?

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Robbie Keane

Goalscorers: Keane (7′), Zardes (11′), Valentin (41′)

Preseason roundup: 10 Premier League clubs in action Saturday

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JULY 23:  Wes Morgan captain of Leicester City holds the International Champions Cup during the Pre Seanon Friendly match between Cetlic and Leicester City at Celtic Park Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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A roundup of Saturday’s preseason friendlies involving Premier League clubs…

Celtic 1-1 Leicester City

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Leicester City winger (and 2015-16 PFA Player of the Year) Riyad Mahrez opened the scoring with a sensational, curling goal guided inside the far post by his magical left foot (WATCH HERE). The Foxes conceded an equalizer just before the hour mark (Eoghan O’Connell), but Claudio Ranieri‘s side still has a number of key players to welcome back into the starting lineup ahead of the opening day for the 2016-17 Premier League season, which is just three weeks from today.

PEC Zwolle 0-4 Southampton

Southampton continued their preseason preparations, under the direction of new manager Claude Puel, with a 4-0 victory over Eredivisie side Zwolle. Nathan Redmond, who arrived from Norwich City in the summer, scored twice on the day (second goal below), while Charlie Austin and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg bagged a goal each.

Portsmouth 3-3 Bournemouth

Bournemouth managed a 3-3 draw with fellow South Coast side Portsmouth, with Lewis Grabban, Jordan Ibe (fresh off signing from Liverpool) and Dan Gosling scoring for the Premier League side.

Barnsley 0-3 Everton

Ross Barkley scored twice and Kevin Mirallas netted the other goal, as Everton, under new boss Ronald Koeman, brushed aside Championship side Barnsley

Elsewhere in preseason action

Bradford City 1-4 Burnley
Rotheram 1-2 Sunderland
Preston North End 1-1 Stoke City
Scunthorpe United 0-2 Hull City
Watford 0-0 Anzhi Makhachkala
PSV Eindhoven vs. West Bromwich Albion — canceled

WATCH: Leicester’s Mahrez picks up where he left off with splendid goal

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Don’t stab at the ball!

It’s a cry that echoes from youth matches to the upper reaches of the game, but Riyad Mahrez has a tendency to force defenders into forgetting fundamentals.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

The Leicester man, linked to Arsenal, danced through the Celtic defense in Saturday’s International Champions Cup action to whip a shot home and give the Foxes a 1-0 lead in Glasgow (The Bhoys have since tied it up).

We’ve seen this so many times from the Algerian, who hopefully sticks around Leicester for the club’s UEFA Champions League run and Premier League title defense.

What does Sunderland managerial change mean for USMNT’s, Spurs’ Yedlin?

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 11: DeAndre Yedlin and Patrick van Aanholt of Sunderland celebrate staying in the Premier League after the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Everton at the Stadium of Light on May 11, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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DeAndre Yedlin left the United States for England in January 2015, the latest step in a career trajectory simply described as “Up”.

Yedlin, now 23, acclimated to life in the Premier League before making a late season appearance with Tottenham to close the 2014-15 season.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

The next year saw him force into Sam Allardyce‘s Sunderland lineup, transforming his defensive acumen in a way that few USMTN fans could deny during this summer’s Copa America Centenario (That pesky red card aside).

But not only is Tottenham in the UEFA Champions League, but Yedlin’s manager at Sunderland is gone. What does this mean for Yedlin? Let’s consider three primary options:

Sunderland still buys him — New manager David Moyes loves him a mobile fullback with offensive capabilities. Not that Yedlin is Leighton Baines, but a starting right back slot in the Premier League could still be in the cards.

Tottenham keeps him around — Mauricio Pochettino likes to rotate his defenders and will have a heavy schedule on his plate. Kieran Trippier was unable to unseat Kyle Walker last season, so the No. 2 chair could be open for Yedlin (although Trippier showed he’s on the level while at Burnley, leading the league in crosses during 2014-15).

Tottenham loans him out — Speedy right backs will be in demand at several spots, and Sunderland is just one destination where fans are clamoring for reinforcements. Lack of purchases is one big reason Steve Bruce just left Hull City, and clubs like that will be aiming for relatively proven players on loan.