Drilling down on: Houston Dynamo 1, at D.C. United 1

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No one does the playoffs like Houston – and they are going back to MLS Cup. Again.

This will be Houston’s fourth trip in seven seasons.

Dominic Kinnear’s team held a semi-cushy two-goal lead heading into RFK Stadium, and Oscar Boniek Garcia’s first-half goal turned a hill into a mountain for a young D.C. United team with good days apparently ahead.

For now, it’s Houston’s day to celebrate.

Kinnear’s men in orange had the right plan and the right players to professionally manage out a 1-1 draw, earning them a 4-2 win on total goals aggregate after Sunday’s Eastern Conference final at RFK Stadium.

Man of the Match:

The visitors had sterling performance all over the field, and most certainly all along the back five (the back four, plus goalkeeper Tally Hall, who never had a foot or a glove out of place. But veteran center back Bobby Boswell, who started his career at RFK with United, was a picture of calm command back there. He won headers, poked balls away, kept from being dragged out wide and even got a little tough when the situation called for it. For 75 minutes, United had done little to both Hall, and Boswell was a major reason why.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Houston had the perfect plan, executed flawlessly:

Talk about a calm, disciplined and professional performance.

Dominic Kinnear did it again. The master of manufacturing playoff results got a little help when his top pair of central midfielders, Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark, were adjudged healthy enough to start.

So he lined up the team in a 4-5-1, pushing Brad Davis and Clark up higher in the middle, allowing Moffat to sweep up behind them. They did concede some possession, but that was built into the scheme, and the men in orange more or less had things in control all along.

That’s because they were able to get just enough offensive push up the flanks through Mac Kandji and Garcia to create some opportunities. Meanwhile, Davis helped keep enough midfielder possession, while Clark covered his ground and Moffat kept that critical positional discipline.

Meanwhile, United choice to go with two defensive midfielders once again looked iffy; sure enough, Marcelo Saragosa, redundant alongside Perry Kitchen, was removed at halftime.

So all that DC United possession led to … precious little for the home side, which was missing too much offensive energy without a fully fit Dwayne De Rosario and without left-sided dynamo Chris Pontius.

United had just one shot on target – just one! – in the first 60 minutes. And Ben Olsen’s side had no corner kicks for almost 60 minutes through the middle of the match, from the 12th until the 68th.

For Houston, there was never a moment of defensive panic, and the Dynamo didn’t make the same mistake it made two weeks ago in a second-leg escape from Kansas City, where they sat back too far and absorbed too much pressure.

Not this time. This was under control all the way. In fact, if the Dynamo did one thing wrong, it was a failure to cinch this series off sooner. Will Bruin, Davis and Kandji wasted beautiful second-half chances on the counter attack.

DCU defense just not good enough:

From United’s side, the series wasn’t lost Sunday; it was dropped a week ago in Houston, when the Dynamo built a brick house of confidence while stacking up three goals.

All year, United’s weak link was along the back, where a collection of adequate defenders (but no commanding ones) gave up 43 goals this year. Defensive mistakes were abundant in last week’s loss at Houston.

And there were the pimples again on Sunday when Brad Davis shot through United back line along the right, while United midfielder Nick DeLeon and DCU’s center backs lost track of Oscar Boniek Garcia in the middle. Goal! And that was pretty much it.

That first-half heartbreaker sucked the life right out of Sunday’s big crowd at RFK, a gut punch from which a deflated United simply could not rally past.

In the bigger picture, United management was overly smitten with attacking DPs. And given the chance to trade late in the season, they picked up … Lionard Pajoy, another striker.

Meanwhile, Olsen had to arrange a system with two holding midfielders to present the back line with sufficient protection. That did get United into the playoffs, but it wasn’t the ticket for breaking all the way through.

United conceded five goals in four playoff games; Houston conceded four in five games, and they’ll go to MLS Cup once again as a result.

Houston’s main men delivered, a couple from the home team did not:

Davis is Houston’s most creative player, which may not be saying much on a meat-and-potatoes side like Houston’s.

But he did create a meaningful moment, and that’s the point. Meanwhile, Hall, Boswell and Jermaine Taylor all had afternoons that deserve long, slow applause. The other Dynamo men were sturdy as battleships.

But “sturdy” isn’t always enough to drive into an MLS Cup; it takes decisive moments from the difference makers.  And that’s where the comparison moves to United’s side, a ledger of lesser. Because United desperately needed one man in particular to deliver: Branko Boskovic.

Originally brought as a Designated Player, he was ostensibly the playmaker to open gaps in defenses around RFK. His struggles have been well documented – but what a moment this would have been for the veteran midfielder to re-write the narrative!

Instead, we saw a quiet symphony of lateral and negative passes. We saw Boskovic defer to teammates time and again. It really was a stark contrast to the way De Rosario made his emotional comeback and immediately enlivened the attack. He actually got balls into the penalty area. He pushed the attack. He finally helped make Houston’s center backs look less comfortable.

Boskovic did finally slice through the Dynamo defense. But where was that earlier? The home team needed that kind of attacking push out of the midfield from the first minute, not just in the 83rd.

Then again, at least he got the start. Hamdi Salihi, another failed DP around RFK, couldn’t he get that. He did get in late, but never did a thing to rattle Hall in Houston’s goal.

Packaged for take-away:

  • Following up on the last point,  Salihi came into Sunday’s contest with just one minute in the playoffs so far. Yikes.
  • The save of the match came from Hall, who pushed away Chris Korb’s perfectly struck, wildly knuckling half-volley in the first half.
  • Houston’s Clark will finally get to play in an MLS Cup; He missed two for Houston due to suspension.

ProSoccerTalk will keep up the discussion of the chase for MLS Cup through the Dec. 1 final.

Mkhitaryan holds key in United’s deal for Sanchez

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This is getting very, very interesting. The late bid from Chelsea and Man City’s exit from the deal aside, there’s been another twist in this saga.

Manchester United’s move for Alexis Sanchez appeared to be getting closer to completion but the agent of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the suggested makeweight in the $48 million deal between United and Arsenal, has thrown a spanner in the works.

Mino Raiola has told The Times that United’s deal for Sanchez won’t go through unless his client agrees to join Arsenal.

“Manchester United is not going to sign Sanchez unless Mkhi agrees to join Arsenal.”Raiola said. “Sanchez is part of the Mkhi deal, not the other way around.”

Wow. Okay. He’s really doing this. Now, Mkhitaryan is a good player. You aren’t named the best player in the Bundesliga and signed by Man United if you’re not. But we all know the Armenian playmaker has struggled this season and for the opening half of the 2016-17 campaign after arriving from Borussia Dortmund.

His agent suggesting that Mkhitaryan is the main prize in this deal is obvious from his point of view as he protects the interest of his client, but the rest of the world knows Alexis is the man everyone wants in January.

It is said that Mkhitaryan (who was left out of United’s squad for the 3-0 win against Stoke on Monday due to the uncertainty around his future) would prefer a return to Dortmund but the Bundesliga giants aren’t said to be willing to pay his wages.

Arsenal were interested in Mkhitaryan in the summer of 2016 but he decided to join United instead, but it would appear that getting $48 million and Mkhitaryan for Sanchez, a player who has less than six months to run on his current contract, is a good deal for the Gunners.

Mkhitaryan holds the key to United’s Sanchez deal and it doesn’t seem like he’s in any rush to sort out his future. Could his delay hand Chelsea some time to try and sew up their own deal for Sanchez?

The transfer window shuts in just over two weeks. Tick-tock indeed.

Donovan joins Leon, ready to “win championships” in Mexico

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Landon Donovan, the most accomplished player in American soccer history, is talking about winning championships with his new team in Mexico.

Donovan is returning from retirement for the second time in three years, this time with Club Leon. He was cheered loudly by hundreds of fans during a brief ceremony Monday, an unusual site not seen for Leon since Mexican great Rafael Marquez signed with Leon in 2014.

“I’m very excited, I did not expect that, it was amazing, now I just want to play and be on the field,” Donovan said in Spanish at a news conference. “It is Monday and very late and people are here. Now I need to talk to the coach to set a plan because it’s been over a year since my last professional game and I will need time, but I’m motivated, I want to win championships.”

The 35-year-old Donovan arrived in Mexico last week while rumors swirled about a possible comeback. He announced Friday night he was coming out of retirement to play in Mexico for the first time in his career.

“I don’t believe in walls, I always wanted to play in Mexico because I grew up in California playing with Mexicans since I was like 8 or 9 years old,” said Donovan, who’s the career scoring leader for the U.S. team and in the MLS.

Former U.S. players Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda have played for Leon. Currently, William Yarbrough is the starting goalkeeper for a Leon team that has won seven league titles.

“I spoke with Marcelo Balboa about the city and also with Omar Gonzales (who plays for Pachuca) to know more about the country,” Donovan said. “I also spoke a lot with (former Puebla player) DaMarcus Beasley because I wanted to know as much as possible. I know that the league is different to the U.S. and to England, I think the style of play suits me, I used to play with Mexicans so my style is more Latino and I think I can be successful. That’s important for me”.

Leon reached the quarterfinals last season and will be a stronger side for the Clausura tournament after signing Giles Barnes (Orlando City), Emanuel Cecchini (Malaga) and now Donovan.

Despite not playing for nearly two years, Donovan has created a lot of expectation. The main sports networks in Mexico devoted plenty of air time to the move, and Donovan’s jersey sold out at the stadium before a game against Toluca on Saturday.

“I think it’s a good move, he’s a very skilled player, just remember how he used to made life difficult for us when he played for the U.S. team against Mexico,” said Tigres coach Ricardo Ferretti, who briefly managed the Mexican team before the arrival of Juan Carlos Osorio.

Donovan returned to the LA Galaxy of MLS in September of 2016 following a 21-month retirement and appeared in nine games. He hasn’t played professionally since Nov. 6, 2016.

Donovan played in three World Cups: South Korea and Japan 2002, Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. He also played in six Gold Cups and won four titles. He scored 57 goals playing for the U.S. team and 145 in the MLS.

Donovan has done broadcast work since retiring and was rumored to be considering a run for U.S. Soccer Federation president. Donovan announced in November that he would not seek the position.

Landon Donovan unveiled by Club Leon

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Landon Donovan was unveiled to Club Leon fans at Estadio Leon on Monday night.

The former USMNT star and longtime LA Galaxy forward came out of retirement for the second time to sign with the Liga MX side this past weekend. Leon finished 7th in the Apertura table, losing to Tigres in the first round of the playoffs. They currently have a perfect six points through the first two Clausura matches, sitting second in the table with a +3 goal differential.

Fans were allowed into the stadium for free, and they packed the lower stand on one end, waving USA flags and holding large “L” and “D” cutouts, and the fans faced a massive board on the field that read “I DON’T BELIEVE IN WALLS.” Chants of “U-S-A” rang out through the stadium before the unveiling.

ESPN reporter Tom Marshall pointed out that the last time the club had such a large event to welcome a player, it was in January of 2013 when the club brought Mexico captain Rafa Marquez in from the New York Red Bulls.

Donovan will don the number 20 for Club Leon.

Report: Rimando to return to RSL

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USMNT veteran and current MLS free agent Nick Rimando will reportedly return to Real Salt Lake for a 12th season with the club, according to a report by Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep.

The report states he received interest on the free agent market from both Los Angeles clubs, but the 38-year-old will return to the club he has made 350 appearances for.

Rimando came to Real Salt Lake from D.C. United in 2006, and has made at least 24 league appearances in every single season since. He has also made 22 playoff appearances for the club across eight playoff campaigns.

He last received a USMNT cap in January of 2017 in a friendly against Serbia, but was part of the 2018 World Cup qualification squad throughout 2017 backing up Tim Howard. Overall, Rimando has played 22 times for the US national team, with 14 goals conceded and nine clean sheets.

The report also states that Kyle Beckerman will return to Rio Tinto Stadium, with the veteran also testing the free agent waters but deciding to re-sign. The pair will be two of just four players left on the roster from the 2009 MLS Cup winning team.