Houston Dynamo v DC United - Eastern Conference Championship - Leg 2

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.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group D: Argentina and Chile aim for first place

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after his teammate Gabriel Mercado scored his side's second goal against Chile during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, Thursday, March 24, 2016. (AP Photo/ Luis Hidalgo)
AP Photo/ Luis Hidalgo
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Argentina

Runners-up in three of the last four Copa America tournaments, Argentina would love to break through for a title in the United States. The 1991 and 1993 winners are going on 23 years without a championship.

Star player: Lionel Messi — What else needs to be said for the world’s best player, other than his international record is missing some titles. The Copa America is one of them.

It goes well for them if they play within any reasonable distance of their talent. With Javier Mascherano, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina run through the group stage and cruise to a final.

But what if Messi is just drained, and neither Aguero and Higuain carry over their club form for country. Second place in this group is no waltz through the knockouts, as Uruguay knocks out the Argentines and cue up more questions about Messi in his national team uniform.


Chile

Alexis Sanchez (below) and La Roja look to build on its first ever Copa America crown, won on home soil last summer in somewhat controversial fashion.

Alexis Sanchez
AP Photo/Martin Mejia

Star player: Arturo Vidal — Yes, Alexis Sanchez might deliver shots, but Vidal stirs the drink. The tempestuous midfielder has everything it takes to turn a game on its head.

Deep from top to bottom: Chile powers through Argentina and then lays waste to Bolivia, able to rest many stars against Panama before beating Group C’s runner-up to set itself up for a repeat of its 2015 title run.

A combustible lineup and aging core combine to leave Chile struggling after a big loss to Argentina. Unable to gather itself together, the Chileans stumble to a draw against Bolivia that leaves them Group D’s runner-up and the victim of Uruguay in the knockout rounds.


Panama

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 20:  Carlos Rodriguez #4 of Panama celebrates with teammate Anibal Godoy #20 after Rodriguez's second half goal during the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal game against Cuba at Georgia Dome on July 20, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

This is a sneaky capable unit coming off a third place finish in the Gold Cup.

Star player: We’ll tap Jaime Penedo, perhaps the lynchpin of a veteran squad. The longtime New York Red Bulls keeper now calls Saprissa his home.

Now is the time for Panama’s experienced core to do big things; Blas Perez, Luis Tejeda, Gabriel Gomez and Felipe Baloy are likely on the end of their national team runs, and San Jose’s Panamaniacs connection of Alberto Quintero and Anibal Godoy — at 28 and 26 — are two of the younger parts of the unit.

But age is a factor when it comes to tournament play, and can Panama possibly outlast either Chile or Argentina? It’s unlikely.


Bolivia

HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 6: Goalkeeper Romel Quinonez #1 of Bolivia makes a save on a corner kick as in front of Theofanis Gekas #17 of Greece during the first half of an international friendly match at Red Bull Arena on June 6, 2014 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Surprising quarterfinalists last summer, Bolivia sits second-last in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualification table. Their only wins since late 2014 have come against Venezuela (2) and Ecuador, and there are a total of just 15 international goals in their 23-man squad.

Star player: Romel Quiñónez — The goalkeeper from Bolivar is set to get a lot of work.

This tournament goes well if: Bolivia handles Panama and manages a draw against Argentina or Chile.

But in all honesty: There will be growing pains for La Verde this summer in the U.S.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group D, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Argentina and Chile thrive, Bolivia and Panama battle for third.

Marquee match: Argentina vs. Chile, June 6. No explanation needed.

Top players to watch

1) Lionel Messi
2) Arturo Vidal
3) Sergio Aguero
4) Angel Di Maria
5) Alexis Sanchez

Copa America 2016 preview, Group C: El Tri looks to build; Can Uruguay deal without Suarez?

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Mexico

El Tri hopes to rebound from a difficult 2015 Copa America that saw them fail to win a match. Top Three appearances in the tournament were once the expectation for Mexico, and being closer to home will raise expectations. And rightly so, as this Mexico team is still in the midst of a very good generation of players.

Star player: Andres Guardado — The PSV Eindhoven midfielder can control a game like a wizard, weaving the ball through back lines and seemingly always in the right place on the pitch.

What a run: Mexico hasn’t lost a single match its 2015 Copa America ouster at the hands of Ecuador, a 17-match stretch that includes a sound defeat of the USMNT in the CONCACAF Cup and a draw against Argentina. With Javier Hernandez and Oribe Peralta firing, Mexico has it in them to make a run to the final. Oh, and El Tri hasn’t allowed a goal in six matches.

But are they sheep in wolves’ clothing? Mexico may be on an incredible run of form, but that win over a moribund U.S. isn’t much to love, and those 17 matches include a pretty weak slate of opponents. Are Mexico’s last few Copa Americas (11th and 12th place finishes) more indicative of its 2016 fate?


Uruguay

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Edinson Cavani will be the star man in the group stage as Uruguay attempts to win its second tournament in three tries. La Celeste have won four Copa Americas and been to six finals.

Star player: Diego Godin — With Luis Suarez’ entire tournament in question, defense is a back part of Uruguay’s hopes. Godin will likely earn his 100th cap during the tournament. With the Atletico Madrid back might be coming off a UEFA Champions League final, and confidence could be a key part of Uruguay’s back line.

And here we go… La Celeste leads CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying through six matches, and Uruguay looks primed to succeed despite the potential loss of Suarez through the group stage. They can navigate that problem thanks to Diego Rolan, Abel Hernandez and Edinson Cavani, and shouldn’t have any trouble with a this group.

But Suarez, though: Yes, Uruguay has depth, but replacing a man who scored 59 goals in 53 games for Barcelona this season? Woof. See what happened when Neymar was injured late in the World Cup for Brazil. Star injuries can sap a team’s courage, and that could hurt Uruguay.


Jamaica

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - OCTOBER 13:  Simon Dawkins of Jamaica competes for the ball with Kim Kee-Hee of South Korea during the international friendly match between South Korea and Jamaica at Seoul World Cup stadium on October 13, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Three straight 1-0 losses saw the Reggae Boyz bounced from the 2015 edition of the tournament, their maiden voyage at Copa America.

Star player: Wes Morgan — Talk about momentum: Jamaica’s strong Gold Cup run worked almost seamlessly into his fairytale season in the middle of Leicester City’s back line.

Coming into its own? After several years off the radar, Winfried Schafer has Jamaica looking capable of doing well in a tournament setting. With a good group of backs including Morgan, Adrian Mariappa and Kemar Lawrence, it’ll be tough for anyone to break down the Reggae Boyz.

All a mirage: Jamaica’s surprising Gold Cup run might’ve been a red herring. Jamaica has lost four of seven matches since Mexico bounced them in controversial fashion.


Venezuela

Venezuela's national soccer team pose for a group photo prior a Copa America Group C soccer match against Brazil at the Monumental stadium in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, June 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)
(AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

Los Llaneros have the misfortune of being in the deep, deep confederation on CONMEBOL, but that doesn’t excuse a brutal year. After beating Colombia to kickoff the 2015 Copa America, Venezuela has won exactly one game. That was a 1-0 win over Costa Rica, and the national team has been dealing with controversy and internal strife.

Star player: Salomon Rondon — West Bromwich Albion’s big striker can turn a defense on its heels with powerful turns and good use of his frame.

Underdog story of a lifetime: With wily veterans making what could be their last runs for the national team, Venezuela sneaks through a winnable group by out-muscling Jamaica and Mexico while battening down the hatches against Uruguay. The world takes notice.

But really, though…  We’d be talking about the tournament equivalent of a Leicester City season. Three-and-out.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group C, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Mexico, Uruguay going through; Jamaica and Venezuela going home

Marquee match: There will be no Luis Suarez come the opener against Mexico, and Arizona will be raucous for El Tri. Circle June 5 on your calendar.

Top players to watch

1) Andres Guardado
2) Edinson Cavani
3) Javier Hernandez
4) Salomon Rondon
5) Diego Godin

Klinsmann praises Nagbe: “He knows he has to push the envelope”

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Pedro Larrea #15 of Ecuador reacts as Nagbe Darlington #10 of the United States celebrates with Christian Pulisic #17 of the United States after scoring against Ecuador during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images
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Breaking into a Jurgen Klinsmann side isn’t easy, especially for an attacker.

With the United States men’s national team boss quite happy to trot out Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and — when healthy — Jozy Altidore, becoming a regular isn’t easy.

So making the most of your opportunity is key, and Darlington Nagbe has done that most times he’s hit the pitch for the USMNT.

[ USMNT-ECUADOR: Match recap | Player ratings | 3 things ]

And scoring a 90th minute winner against Ecuador, even in a 1-0 friendly win, is going to help his odds of sticking in the coach’s mind. Klinsmann said Nagbe “knows he has to push the envelope”, and lauded him for doing so while cautioning that he’s never questioned the offensive acumen of Portland Timbers’ man.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“Now you also want to tell him ‘Listen, you’ve got to make an impression. You’ve got to learn to play both ways and grind it out defensively, go into 1v1s and win balls as well,’” Klinsmann said.

“And that’s just going forward. He has tremendous talent with the ball at his feet going forward. That’s what we enjoy in MLS every weekend. But the international side is both ways, and that’s what we’re working on. And he’s getting better and better at doing that.”

Nagbe was among a handful of U.S. players to shine during a dominant second half that saw the Timbers midfielder snare the decisive goal, and it’s not a stretch to say he was the brightest. Let’s hope to see him get a chance to start on Saturday against Bolivia.

Lukaku will listen to Everton but “I have my own ideas in mind

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 11: Romelu Lukaku of Everton arrives for 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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Romelu Lukaku‘s future looks to be away from Goodison Park.

The big Belgian striker authored 25 goals across all competitions this season, including 18 in the Premier League.

[ MORE: Zlatan has “taken a decision” ]

But as he prepares for the Euro 2016 tournament, Lukaku’s comments make it seem likely that even new investments from up high aren’t going to keep him on Merseyside.

From Sky Sports:

“We have a new investor at Everton and out of courtesy I will listen to what he has to say. But I have my own ideas in mind. I want to win titles.

“I have had a very good season, but it is time for me to write myself a CV. That is why I play football. I got that trophy-winning mindset from Chelsea.”

Lukaku would be a big ticket item on the transfer market, and should go for more than the $41 million price tag Everton paid to get him from Chelsea.