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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World Cup expansion will destroy regional qualifying

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On Thursday, FIFA announced a preliminary plan to expand the World Cup to a whopping 48 teams, starting in 2026 if the approval process goes as planned.

Every continental region is gaining slots, with CONCACAF nearly doubling its allotment, Africa adding four teams, and Europe gaining three. 46 teams would make the tournament outright, while another two would come from a six-team playoff.

The early outlook was met with cautious optimism across the soccer community, and there’s no doubt that the World Cup itself would benefit from expansion, with not only a significantly increased revenue stream for the FIFA brass to gawk at, but also viewers will gain from added entertainment, a la March Madness as smaller countries gain access to opportunities to shock larger nations in front of a grander audience.

[ MORE: FIFA announces World Cup expansion details ]

Despite the obvious gains, what gets completely and utterly dismantled is the qualification stage. In exchange for a month of tournament-style wackiness, not only does making the World Cup completely lose any remaining pedigree, but the qualification stage becomes an afterthought for continental powerhouses.

This particularly applies to CONCACAF, where currently the final round of qualification features a six-team round-robin. The way it stands currently, the usual bunch can often overcome minor slips to qualify on a regular basis, but as we’re seeing with the United States, at least things are interesting for the opening few rounds and questions often remain throughout the entire process. Just last cycle, we saw Mexico qualify thanks to the United States’ generosity with a last-second goal against Panama to send their southern neighbors through. Bottom line: it’s not always easy.

Now, with the new system, a massive total of six teams will make the finals, leaving almost no doubt about the fates of those at the top. Mexico and the United States will be shoo-ins, leaving the qualification process a near-afterthought. Sure, countries that don’t always see the final rounds will now have an increased shot, and that’s a great development for the growth of the game worldwide, but it comes at a great price. Now, instead of the ability to lure casual World Cup-only fans with meaningful games between tournaments, national teams will be left with a shell of the old qualification process to slog through.

Looking to Europe, already teams like France, Spain, and Germany are running away with their groups in the current format. Add three more slots to the mix, and even the next tier of countries like England, Poland, and Italy will be given near-automatic spots. Group G currently sees Spain and Italy battling for the automatic berth, with the runner-up left with a chance at disappointment in a one-game playoff. Now, with the new system, the life is sucked from the process, and teams are left with glorified friendlies.

In South America, four (usually five) teams make the tournament. That often leaves a top team sweating it out near the end of the cycle, with Argentina currently tugging at its collar having slipped in recent qualifiers. Add two more automatic slots, and you can kiss the drama goodbye. As it stands, Argentina – despite three losses in its last five matches – would still be four points clear of danger.

tl;dr version: It’s no fun anymore.

Nobody is surprised by FIFA’s pursuit of yet another way to increase revenue; we’ve seen it countless times before. Unfortunately, the price is high, as the 3-1/2 years between would entirely fall apart.

Preview of every Premier League game – Week 30

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It’s back! The Premier League returns after the final international break of the 2016-17 season and the run-in has begun.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

With a massive clash between Arsenal and Manchester City on Sunday, plus the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton on Saturday and tricky tests for Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea, plenty of the big boys could drop points this weekend.

[ MORE: PL schedule | Standings

Below is a look at all 10 games with team news, top things to watch and a score prediction for each encounter.


Southampton vs. Bournemouth

Liverpool vs. Everton

Arsenal vs. Manchester City

Burnley vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace

Manchester United vs. West Brom

Hull City vs. West Ham

Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough

Leicester City vs. Stoke City

Watford vs. Sunderland

Ilkay Gundogan impressed by US progress

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Manchester City and Germany midfielder Ilkay Gundogan has been sharing Manchester City’s mantra in the USA recently.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

With City announcing the schedule for their U.S. tour this summer, Gundogan’s long-term knee injury meant he was able to travel Stateside and work on his rehab while he also checked out New York City, promoted City’s upcoming tour, hung out in the studio with the NBC Sports crew — see the video above as Gundogan talks tactics with Robbie Earle — and also took in some MLS action.

He was a busy, busy man.

[ MORE: PL giants announce US tour dates

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk after his trip, the 26-year-old midfielder is excited about returning to the States this summer with his teammates as they face Real Madrid in LA, Tottenham Hotspur in Nashville and arch rivals Manchester United in preseason games.

“This preseason will be really important for the club, and it was also a privilege to represent the club and help launch our summer tour of the USA,” Gundogan said. “We are due to play some amazing games against Spurs, Real Madrid and also the derby with Manchester United. It’s a great chance to see some more USA cities and culture, and the players will be delighted to be out there in some good weather in some amazing stadiums, in order to prepare for the season.”

Gundogan was a key part of Pep Guardiola‘s rebuild of City last summer but the former Borussia Dortmund star suffered a season-ending injury in December. He is well on the road to recovery and has had a close friend throughout the last few weeks of his rehab.

Joining him on his trip to the U.S. was fellow City teammate Gabriel Jesus — the 19-year-old Brazilian striker is recovering from a broken metatarsal — and the duo enjoyed hanging out in New York City to give themselves a break from the day-to-day grind in the gym.

“The hospitality in New York was brilliant, and the overall trip was a great way for Gabriel and myself to combine our rehabilitation in the gym with some marketing and community work for the club,” Gundogan explained. “We took in some U.S. sports by visiting games at New York City FC, the Brookyln Nets and New York Rangers, and also did some sightseeing around New York. I enjoyed seeing the Manchester City billboard advert in Times Square with our photo on it! And watching Germany beat England in a New York bar in Manhattan was also an experience…”

One of the advantages of visiting the Big Apple was the fact that City’s stars could spend some time with sister club New York City FC and Gundogan and Gabriel had the chance to meet with NYCFC boss Patrick Vieira, with the German taking a keen interest in how the game is developing in the USA.

“Gabriel and I went for dinner with Patrick Vieira and we heard all about how well he is enjoying coaching New York City FC. And we saw the NYCFC game against Montreal, and it was incredible to witness the passion for the club there at Yankee Stadium,” Gundogan said. “There is no doubt that soccer is on an upward curve in the USA, and its very interesting to see it developing. The passion for sport is evident, the facilities are incredible, and they have all the ingredients for soccer to continue to improve.”

Overall, the trip was a great way for the silky midfielder to taste the U.S. before a big summer Stateside for City and MLS had a lasting impression on the German star who is hopeful that soccer will continue to grow and progress.

“We do get to see MLS games over in Europe now and then, and there is an increased focus on it at Manchester City, given our colleagues in New York play in that league,” Gundogan said. “It was great to see it in the flesh at Yankee Stadium last week and I’ll definitely be paying a closer attention to it in future. I certainly think it has a great potential. There are some great players in the league, both from at home and also the stars coming from elsewhere around the globe like Andrea Pirlo and David Villa. The standard is improving all the time.”

Two months to go: What’s ahead for each Premier League club?

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The sun is shinning in England this week as we head into April and there are just nine gameweek’s remaining in the Premier League. Can you believe it?

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

After a long winter, the business end of the season is here and there’s still so much on the line when it comes to the top four race, relegation battle and maybe, just maybe, Chelsea will start to wobble as the edge closer to the title…

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings |  Schedule

Let’s have some fun by summing up what lies ahead in the final two months of the season for each club in a single sentence. With no more international breaks to negotiate, we are entering the home-stretch of the 2016-17 campaign.

Ready? Here it goes.


Arsenal – Uncertainty in the air, Arsene Wenger‘s side have to regroup to secure a top four finish and try to win the FA Cup with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil putting their contract issues aside and leading the way.

Bournemouth – Should be a stroll in the South Coast sun for the Cherries in the final few months of the season as Eddie Howe‘s side have picked up back-to-back wins and should be clear of relegation and able to express themselves.

Burnley – Well on course to retain their status as a Premier League club for the first time in history, Sean Dyche‘s side will hunt their first away win of the season and look to cause a few more shocks at home with relegation no longer a lingering fear.

Chelsea – All about the title for Chelsea as Antonio Conte‘s men can wrap things up before the end of April if other results go their way, plus the double is still up for grabs as Conte looks to cap off his first season in England in style.

Crystal PalaceSam Allardyce the survival expert is at it again with three-straight shutout wins as he’s sorted out Palace’s defense but knows a huge challenge is ahead with all of the top six teams still to play.

Everton – The Toffees have top four aspirations and are the in-form team in the Premier League in 2017 as Ronald Koeman hopes Romelu Lukaku‘s goals can fire Everton to an unlikely top six finish.

Hull City – Survival is the key for the Tigers as Marco Silva’s men battle against all the odds to remain in the Premier League and they have a real fighting chance with some big games against relegation rivals still remaining.

Leicester City – After three-straight wins new manager Craig Shakespeare will look to secure Leicester’s PL status as soon as possible and then all the focus is on Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals… surely they can’t make the UCL’s last four?

LiverpoolJurgen Klopp‘s preseason target of finishing in the top four is well within reach but you get the lingering sense that Liverpool’s fans are getting nervous as clashes with bottom half teams proving tricky all season long.

Manchester City – Top four finish (by no means a guarantee) and an FA Cup victory would be a decent first season for Pep Guardiola at City but after spending so much money there’s a feeling that better things are to come next season.

Manchester United – All the focus is on somehow qualifying for the Champions League next season, be that with a top four finish or winning the Europa League as Jose Mourinho’s injury-hit squad will be under intense pressure as the games come thick and fast.

Middlesbrough – The next three weeks will define Boro’s season as they face direct relegation rivals and caretaker boss Steve Agnew simply needs his team to start throwing caution to the wind and score some goals.

Southampton – Saints’ season is in danger of petering out after their Europa League exploits and EFL Cup final defeat as they aren’t close to the relegation zone and can’t finish any higher than eighth place in Claude Puel‘s debut campaign in charge.

Stoke CityMark Hughes‘ Stoke are set for a fourth-straight top 10 finish but making that extra leap to try and challenge the top six is proving so difficult for not only the Potters but a host of well-run teams.

Sunderland – Survival is on the mind of David Moyes‘ side who have spent 91 percent of the campaign in the bottom three and they need Jermain Defoe to keep scoring and for their fans to pray for a miracle…

Swansea City – After picking up big wins when Paul Clement first arrived, the Swans have regressed in recent weeks and they need to win key games against relegation rivals in the run-in before some tough games to finish with.

Tottenham HotspurMauricio Pochettino‘s youngsters believe they can still catch Chelsea and win the Premier League title with a favorable run of games to finish with, but another top four finish would be a great season and adding an FA Cup trophy would be the cherry on top despite their struggles in Europe.

WatfordWalter Mazzarri‘s men have had a really strange season and after losing three of their last four games the Hornets are starting to glance over their shoulders a little at the relegation zone with a tough finish to the season coming up.

West Brom – A phenomenal season so far for the Baggies as they aim to reach 50 points in a single season for the first time in club history and Tony Pulis‘ men will look to upset Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea in the process.

West HamSlaven Bilic and the Hammers probably can’t wait for this season to end but there’s still a very good chance they can finish in the top 10 with a favorable run-in giving them a chance to salvage a season riddled by injuries, the move to a new stadium and losing Dimitri Payet.