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.

Tottenham’s strong American connection continues

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LONDON — The American connection at Spurs remains strong.

Each year a small group of young American soccer players get the chance of a lifetime: to train and play games at Tottenham Hotspur for a week.

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Pro Soccer Talk was given exclusive access on the most recent trip to England for a group of 30 young American players handpicked by Tottenham’s academy coaches after impressing at the latest Tottenham Hotspur America Trophy held in December 2016.

For the past five years the tournament has been a huge success with the competition, run in conjunction with Elite Tournaments who are based in the USA, producing incredible experiences for young players from the U.S. from the age of 12-15 which has even resulted in national team recognition for some.

[ MORE: Spurs excited for 2017 US tour

Over the Easter break at Spurs’ impressive training ground near Enfield in north London you could hear American accents taking over with “dang” and “shoot the ball” yelled out by young hopefuls who trained for a week with Tottenham’s coaches and played games against academy teams from Spurs and Queens Park Rangers.

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How does this all work?

Two of Spurs academy coaches go over to watch the tournament in December and then handpick individuals to come over to England for the training camp.

Matt Libber, the Vice President of Elite Tournaments, was stood on the sideline keeping a watchful eye over training as he and his staff have now helped organize this tournament, among many others, for the past five years.

Elite tournaments have been around since March 2000 and now have 60 events across the USA, mostly focusing on soccer, and new events are popping up across the nation. “It’s widespread. People want to play soccer,” Libber explained.

Such has been the popularity of this event (93 teams from multiple states competed in the tournament back in December) it is being expanded to new parts of the USA in 2017 and beyond.

“We are expanding the tournament this year,” Libber said. “Previously it was just one event in Baltimore but we are moving it to two events for the next edition. We are going to be down in the College Station, Texas area and then in Orlando, Florida this coming December and we are hoping to expand the event further, to bring more kids over here and to increase the exposure of the event and for Spurs in the States.”

The connection with Spurs and the U.S. runs truer than perhaps any other Premier League club.

Of course, Fulham’s days of “Fulhamerica” are still fond in the memory of many American soccer fans but after boasting Kasey Keller, Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, DeAndre Yedlin and now Cameron Carter-Vickers, Tottenham continue be one the first teams that American soccer fans think about supporting when they get into watching the Premier League.

Eric Dier, a star midfielder for Tottenham and England, told us of his amazement at the huge number of Spurs fans in the States as he often visits his sister who lives in New York City and he and his family are blown away by the level of support across the country.

“Every time I go over to America I can’t believe how many Tottenham fans there are over there,” Dier said. “It is amazing that our reach is so far. Obviously there’s a connection because Tottenham have always had great American players and I think there is a real connection with the American fans.”

Spurs are heading to the USA this summer with games against AS Roma in New York City, Manchester City in Nashville and Paris Saint-Germain in Orlando lined up for July. Dier and his teammates are looking forward to their first trip Stateside for two years.

“Everyone is really excited to go over there and we last went there two preseasons ago with the All-Star Game in Colorado which was a great experience. We are looking forward to working hard, playing some big games and enjoying the chance to see our fanbase in America,” Dier added.

What do the kids who go on these trips get out of it? So much.

Speaking to Danny Mitchell, a member of Tottenham’s global coaching program who spent the week with the youngsters from the U.S., he revealed that on the pitch there’s a real challenge for the young Americans.

“The one thing a lot of these kids have always said is that it is a challenge physically, in the nature of the way the game is played,” Mitchell said. “This week there has been a lot of technical stuff which I’m not sure they’ve necessarily done a lot of before but they’ve all engaged well and have responded well to what we have done.”

Engaged in some foreign relations with the Elite Tournaments America Trophy Select Team and the @spursofficial Academy

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Split into two age groups and playing on Spurs’ main indoor facility as the club logo loomed large in the background, one group played head tennis and another a possession game designed to trigger a high-press. As well as on the pitch the group went on stadium tours of White Hart Lane, Wembley, had a Q&A with Dier and watched other games live as part of the full experience.

With some kids picking up the lingo in England rather quickly with choice phrases (think, Ted Lasso’s nickname…) commonplace, it was obvious that even though they didn’t play on the same teams back home and hailed from several U.S. states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Connecticut, the young American players were having the team of their lives.

Over the past five years the main takeaway for young Americans getting the chance to play and train at Spurs is the level of coaching and competition during the scrimmages in England.

“It is eye-opening for the kids, seeing the training style in the U.S. is so different to what it is here,” Libber explained. “For them it opens their eyes to see there is a bigger option out there and also the competition they’re playing against over here. Some years we’ve done really well and other years not so great. It gives them an opportunity to see what other teams are like when they’re not playing against the same teams they play every game in the States.”

Libber (he and his staff racked up 1900 miles in their rental car while in England as they traveled to games at Lincoln, Sunderland and beyond) also explained that players who caught the eye on previous trips have now gone on to big things.

“Most definitely. A couple of years ago when we were over here, we had a couple of kids who Brad Friedel recognized the talent they had and they ended up in the national team pool after that when they got back to the States,” Libber said. “One is now the goalkeeper for the U-17 national team (Quantrell Jones) and another is in college right now (Keegan Kelly at the University of Maryland) after being in the national pool. They got noticed when they were over here.”

Liam Nesbitt, a 14-year-old central midfielder from Baltimore, Maryland, is hoping to be the next in line to benefit from this tournament.

Reflecting on his trip to Tottenham, Nesbitt revealed what he’s learned from the experience.

“It’s been great. I was told this is the best academy in terms of learning the game in England and I don’t doubt it now because it is so nice,” Nesbitt said. “It has been a lot of fun and the coaching has been great. I support Tottenham and this has been like a dream come true. My favorite player is N'Golo Kante though and that’s who I try to base my game off of. I’ve picked up a few new turns to do and these coaches have taught me what drills to do in order to master those moves.”

Patrick Aponowicz was the youngest player on the trip from the U.S. and the 10-year-old was also a Spurs fan who idolized Kyle Walker.

With his flowing locks of blonde hair Aponowicz had been quickly handed the nickname of “Nedved” after the famous Czech Republic winger who shone for Juventus and his country.

“I learned new touches and passing,” Aponowicz said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Come On You Spurs

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Like a lot of 10 year olds Aponowicz has a busy schedule and says he wishes he could watch even more soccer as he dreams of one day playing in the Premier League for Tottenham.

“I have school, playing for my soccer team four days a week and homework,” Aponowicz said. “My dream is to play for Tottenham and I want to come back here and train.”

Aponowicz isn’t the only young American dreaming of one day returning to England to play for Spurs after a taste of life at Tottenham.

“Definitely… definitely. That’s the dream,” Nesbitt said, nodding his head as his eyes gazed around in wonderment at the vast indoor facility at Tottenham.

The American connection continues to be stronger at Tottenham than perhaps any other Premier League club.

Conte reveals how Kante can improve; hits out at rivals

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Now, after winning the PFA Player of the Year for the 2016-17 Premier League season you have to think N'Golo Kante is on top of the world right now.

[ MORE: Herrera on Manchester derby ]

Maybe this is why Antonio Conte has revealed that he thinks Kante can improve despite the tireless central midfielder driving Chelsea towards the Premier League title.

Speaking ahead of the Blues’ clash with Southampton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday (2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Conte praised Kante’s incredible season but when talking about the 26-year-old Frenchman could go on to captain Chelsea one day, here’s what he had to say.

“He’s a silent leader! N’Golo is young. He can improve in that aspect. When you arrive at a great team like Chelsea and it’s your first season, it’s very difficult to try to speak and lead, but I think he is a silent leader, a leader on the pitch with good example,” Conte said. “He’s not the type of player who likes to speak. He’s not like John [Terry] for personality! With years he can improve in this aspect, and this award this season brings him a lot of confidence in himself.”

So, Conte wants Kante to come out of his shell a little more. That may be tougher than you think. Despite dominating the Premier League in each of the last two seasons with Leicester and now Chelsea, Kante is described as an introvert and a quiet player off the pitch who goes about his job each and every day with minimal fuss.

Still, when you think that Chelsea spent just over $40 million to snatch him away from Leicester last summer that’s an incredible piece of business.

Speaking of transfers and spending money on new players, Conte has also had plenty to say about that with his team sitting four point clear at the Premier League’s summit and both Manchester clubs scrambling for fourth place.

Conte was joined by Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho in taking over new clubs last summer and he’s overachieved while the latter two have underachieved despite spending huge sums of cash. What does Conte make of that?

“It’s important to understand it’s not always who spends more wins,” Conte said. “This season isn’t the only season both Manchester clubs have spent a lot of money. Look at the past. [We want] to build, also, slowly slowly to become a real power.”

If Conte does want to look at the past then he will see Chelsea has spent more money on new players than any other in the PL era, with about $1.6 billion on transfers while Man City are next on the list ($1.55 billion) and Man United are in third ($1.29 billion).

Hmmm.

Manchester derby “the game of the season”

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Whatever way you slice it up, Thursday’s Manchester derby is huge.

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Manchester City host Manchester United (Watch, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola‘s side just one point ahead of United in the Premier League table.

City currently occupy fourth spot and the final UEFA Champions League qualification berth but are coming off the back of a damaging FA Cup semifinal defeat to Arsenal after extra time.

United and Jose Mourinho haven’t lost in 23 Premier League games, the longest current unbeaten streak across Europe’s top five leagues, and are in the UEFA Europa League semifinals as their banged up squad have stood tall in the final months of the campaign.

Speaking ahead of the derby, one of United’s stars this season believes everything comes down to this one game.

“It is going to be the game of the season,” Ander Herrera said. “We are one point behind them. If we win we have the chance to finish in the top four, if they win it is going to be very difficult. It is the game of the season.

“Make or break? Probably. Both teams are in a good moment so if one of us wins the game we are not going to lose a lot of games, or make mistakes after that. Us or them. It is going to be key. I don’t know the ‘winner takes all’ expression but it is going to be a massive game. We are in a very good moment, a very good run and we respect them but we are doing a lot of good things and we have to show it on Thursday.”

Herrera’s comments say it all.

It is fair to say that both Manchester clubs have flattered to deceive for much of this season with Guardiola’s tactics yet to flourish in England and Mourinho’s rebuild hampered by injuries and a lack of goals at crucial moments.

On Thursday there will be a raucous atmosphere at the Etihad as both teams are aware of what is at stake.

More of the pressure may well be on City who now have just a place in the top four to focus on and with many previously giving United no chance of finishing in the top four, a win at City would take them above their “noisy neighbors” and into the UCL spots.

Former Czech Republic defender Rajtoral kills himself

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PRAGUE (AP) Former Czech Republic defender Frantisek Rajtoral, who won the domestic league title four times before joining Turkish club Gaziantepspor, died on Sunday. He was 31.

[ MORE: Bayern scouted Kyle Walker, Alex Sanchez this weekend ]

The Czech football federation said in a statement that Rajtoral had “committed suicide in Turkey.”

His agent Pavel Zika confirmed the player’s death, describing it as a “huge tragedy.”

Gaziantepspor announced Rajtoral’s death in a brief statement on its website.

Rajtoral played 14 international matches for the Czech Republic.

In the top Czech league, he won four titles with Viktoria Plzen and played in the group stage of the Champions League twice for the club. He moved to Hannover in the Bundesliga in 2014 for half of the season, on loan.

He left Viktoria Plzen last year to move to Turkey.