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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Europa League final: Man United too tough for Ajax, qualify for UCL

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Though it may have required a minor detour in the journey to the intended destination, Jose Mourinho’s first season as Manchester United manager ultimately reached the promised land: qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Once it became clear that Man United’s season was unlikely to result in a top-four finish in the Premier League (they eventually wound up sixth), Mourinho put every Mancunian egg into the Europa League basket, and it paid off on Wednesday, as United topped Ajax, 2-0, in the Europa League final inside the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.

Paul Pogba put United 1-0 ahead after just 18 minutes (WATCH HERE), benefitting from a wicked deflection off a defender’s shin, and Mourinho’s famously rigid, organized midfield and defensive structure frustrated a young Ajax side (a starting lineup with an average age of just under 23 years old) that reached the final on the back of a free-flowing, attacking tidal wave.

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

Down just a goal, Ajax needed little more than a moment of brilliance from any number of rising stars sure to fetch massive transfer fees and land big-money contracts elsewhere in Europe, in the not-so-distant future.

That hope lasted less than 180 seconds into the second half, though, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled the lead, thanks to some unbelievably quick reflexes and a tidy overhead kick from three yards out. Ajax would manage just two shots on goal all night (four for United).

Not only did Mourinho deliver Champions League qualification, alongside a European trophy, United also claimed the EFL Cup back in February. With the allure of UCL football next season, expect another busy (and expensive) summer of spending at Old Trafford.

AT THE HALF: Man Utd lead Ajax in UEL final, thanks to Pogba (video)

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After 45 minutes of Wednesday’s Europa League final, between Manchester United and Ajax, in Stockholm, Sweden, Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils have one foot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

After a cagey opening 15 minutes that saw neither side create anything of consequence, Man United pulled ahead on a fair bit of luck in the 18th minute. Paul Pogba received the ball 25 yards from goal, took a touch toward goal and fired a low shot toward goal. Davinson Sanchez did everything he could to get his body in front of the strike, but the ball glanced off his shin, sending it one direction and goalkeeper Andre Onana the other.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Europa League final ] 

Having conceded just eight goals in 14.5 Europa League games thus far this season, would you bet on United conceding an equalizer in the final 45 minutes? Hit the link above to follow along, live.

Valverde dismisses deal to coach Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Departing Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde has been avoiding talk about a possible move to Barcelona, saying he has not entered into negotiations with any club.

Valverde did not confirm reports that he has already reached a deal to coach Barcelona next season, and did not dismiss taking a year off after four seasons at Athletic.

“I haven’t committed to any club, I haven’t talked to anybody,” Valverde said. “I have an agent and there are teams that have shown interest in me. Now I have to decide whether I will take on a new adventure, and it would have to be a challenging one.”

The 53-year-old Valverde has been widely touted to replace Luis Enrique, who announced earlier this year that he was tired and would not continue as Barcelona’s coach.

The Catalan club ends its season after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday.

The Mundo Deportivo newspaper reported this week that Valverde has already reached a two-year deal with Barcelona, with an option for a third season. The newspaper said the announcement would be made next week.

“I don’t know what’s been published,” Valverde said. “I never talk about negotiations with clubs and that won’t change. This wouldn’t be the first time that I have offers from important clubs.”

He said there was still the possibility of taking some time off and not immediately taking over another club.

“Why not?” he said. “In the end I can do whatever I want, no?”

A former forward, Valverde played two seasons with Barcelona in the late 1980s. He spent six years with Athletic from 1990-96.

Valverde didn’t hide that he will be hoping Barcelona wins the Copa del Rey title this weekend, which would guarantee Athletic a spot in the Europa League next season. Athletic finished seventh in the Spanish league, but will play in the second-tier European competition with a Barcelona victory because the Catalan club will play in the Champions League. Only the teams in fifth and sixth places automatically qualify for the Europa League.

Valverde led Athletic to victory over Barcelona in the final of the Spanish Super Cup in 2015, which marked the team’s first title in more than three decades. He also coached the club from 2003-05.

Valverde has also coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia.

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

LIVE: Man United face Ajax in Europa League final

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Manchester United and Ajax square off in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday for the UEFA Europa League trophy and a place in the Champions League next season.

[ LIVE: Europa League final ] 

This a huge game for Jose Mourinho and United bad coming less than 48 hours after a suicide bomber killed 22 people in Manchester, this game has taken an entirely different complexion.

The mood around the Friends Arena is a somber one as Manchester United’s fans mourn those lost in the terror attack and people around the world send their love and prayers to Manchester.

Black armbands will be worn by both teams and there will be a minute’s silence before the game to honor the victims.

United have never won this trophy and they will have their work cut out against a young, talented Ajax side.

Click no the link above to follow the action live from Stockholm, while here at ProSoccerTalk we will have all the analysis, reaction and more from the final.