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.

Agent: Liverpool contacted Klopp only after Rodgers firing

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 09:  Jurgen Klopp arrives to be unveiled as the new manager of Liverpool FC at a press conference at Anfield on October 9, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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As soon as Brendan Rodgers was dismissed by Liverpool on Sunday, Jurgen Klopp’s name was tossed around as the likely successor to the then-vacant Liverpool managerial position.

However, according to Klopp’s representatve Marc Kosicke, Liverpool did not make contact with the German until after Rodgers had been officially let go.

“The first call from Liverpool came after the dismissal as coach of Rodgers,” Kosicke told Bild. “Before Liverpool there were naturally quite a few inquiries. But Jurgen always asked me not to take it any further.”

Club management was less committal than Klopp’s rep, but did say they had their eye on the German for some time. “We have learned to keep certain matters confidential. We had a meeting recently with Jurgen that he has talked about and I don’t want to talk too much about these conversations. But we have thought about him for a long time and everyone who knows football knows he is an outstanding manager.”

It’s relatively hard to believe Liverpool would have canned Rodgers without knowing for sure that a top-level target such as Klopp or Carlo Ancelotti were on board to replace him. It also would mean discussions of the contract terms and logistics would have moved at lightning speed, with just four days between the Rodgers dismissal and Klopp’s official unveiling.

England’s Mark Sampson on growth of women’s soccer, NWSL

Mark Sampson
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Head coach of England women’s national team Mark Sampson is a man who has had his life transformed over the past six months.

[ MORE: English women inspire a nation ]

Since England finished third at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada — the Three Lionesses had failed to win a single knockout game before their exploits in Canada — Sampson and his team have been at the fore of the women’s game getting increased exposure and attendances in England.

[ MORE: Klopp dazzles on Liverpool unveiling ]

With that in mind, ProSoccerTalk caught up with Sampson to discuss his appearance at the Balanced Business Forum (BBF) in London next week, which promotes gender balance in the business world, plus we also spoke to him about what the reaction has been like in England since returning from the World Cup and his plans for his own team, and his own coaching pathway, for the future.

Q: Mark, what is it about the BBF which made you so interested in speaking and getting involved?

A: I have  been fortunate enough to work in women’s football for a number of years now and at a number of levels as well and be around some elite people on and off the field, whether that be on the pitch or away from the pitch in the boardroom. I am very passionate about women’s sport and women in business. It is a great opportunity to share my experiences, particularly over the course of the summer, where I worked with a group of women who were successful and achieved something very special. It is a unique opportunity to share those experiences.

You have seen up close the positive impact of women playing soccer at the elite level. How important is it to develop those qualities in young women?

Certainly within women’s football we have seen a huge leap in recent years in not only the quality of play on the field but the change in the dynamic in the game as a whole. We are seeing more people watching domestic football, more people supporting the international team, we are seeing more clubs move towards a more professional model, which is creating positions not only for women on the field but off the field. I think women’s football at the moment is seen as a leading light not only in women’s sport but promoting in high positions.

How does all of this slot into your long-term and short-term goals with the English national team?

From our point of view we are obviously keen to promote the team and the game. We still have a lot of work to do at growing the game, whether that be at grassroots level, domestic level or international level. We are not where we want to be at yet. We want to make sure we continue to grow and these kind of opportunities are great for us to share our experiences, share our journeys and make sure that we are continually promoting good practice in women’s sport. The FA are certainly very strong around supporting women’s coaches, grassroots development, women in the boardroom and these are great opportunities to share those experiences and push that message even further.

After being involved at Swansea City and other clubs in the men’s game, what it the biggest differences you’ve seen between men’s and women’s soccer over the years?

The most important thing to mention, always, is that football is football. The great thing is that the women’s game now is getting the respect from people outside of it that maybe it didn’t have in previous years. Certainly there is a long way to go to move it closer to the men’s game but there is far more acceptance now from the men’s game. As a sport and it has got its own identity and people support it. The likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, they are football clubs who have really got behind and jumped on the bandwagon of women’s football and have started to develop really strong models at club level, hence we are seeing better players, better programs and more bums on seats at grounds. That is probably the way for us to go, moving forward, to really connect with the men’s game and ensure women’s football is visible within their clubs.

Since the World Cup, the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in England has seen attendances rising, is that a big plus for you?

Absolutely. We are really working hard at ground level to push attendances and grow the game and to see it transpire at club matches and international matches is just a pat on the back really, for all the hard work that is going on. There has been hard work going on for many years, many years before I started working in the women’s football and here people haven’t got the rewards they deserve for the work that has been put in but now the rewards are there for everybody to see and the challenge is to continue to grow these partnerships and move the game forward. I still think we have a long way to go but this is a huge opportunity to keeping growing this game.

Can you sum up the reaction and incredible interest levels in the England women’s national team? What has that been like since you returned home after the successful summer?

The best way to describe it is, it is a different world. Jumping straight back off the plane we’ve had far more media interest, many more spectators at grounds, the girls are getting recognized in the street and people are genuinely supporting the team and excited about where this team is going. It has been great because people have been grafting away behind-the-scenes for years with the training, matches and hard work, and now to get to the point where they are being recognized for that, it is a real special time. It has given me even more motivation to keep that going and push it even further.


What is the next step for this team? You have a friendly tournament in China next month and then EURO 2017 which you are qualifying for right now. Surely you will be one of the favorites to win EURO 2017? 

As a nation like England whether that be in men’s or women’s football, you are always going to be one of the favorites for a major championship. That pressure is always going to be there. This team has been great at managing that pressure and seeing it as an opportunity and pushing it. There is a big challenge for us. We have got to always think about the big picture on this one. If we want to be winning these major championships, the World Cups and European Championships, then we have to consistently perform. To do that we need to play the best teams on a regular basis and win matches. A lot of time in international football people think you can turn up at a major tournament and turn it on for two months and go home with a trophy, but the reality of it is you need to be the best team, consistently, going into those tournaments and that has got to be our challenge in the next two to four years. Make sure we are winning football matches, growing our program and growing the game so that when we turn up at major championships, people look at England as a genuine contender.

Looking over at the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the USA, what do you make of the progress they have made?

Since it has come back into the fore, it has been really important. The U.S. are a leading nation of the women’s game and when the previous pro league fell by the wayside I always felt it was important for the women’s game as a whole that America were delivering a professional league. It is great to see the crowds and the quality of the football in America, in terms of how that relates to us, we are different. The culture in England is very different to America and we have got to work out how we are going to be competitive and sometimes the best way to find a competitive edge is to find something new and do something different. We are certainly going to look at what is going on in America, learn lessons of the good and the bad and make sure we find something that works well for our team and our country about growing the game. We have certainly got to give huge credit to the States and not only the work the national team and Jill is doing but domestically. The way they’ve grown the game and their fanbase, every nation is saying that we need to find a way of doing something like this.

You are obviously focused on your job with England right now, but I wanted to ask you about your own future. There are British coaches over in the NWSL, some of your players are over there too. If an opportunity arose in the NWSL or the U.S. in the future, would you consider it? 

Every coach is always going to say they are fully focused on their current job and I am certainly no different to that. In the future there will be some new challenges and I would never say no to anything, and certainly the way the women’s game is growing, and not just for me but every coach, there are going to be more opportunities to go and work at professional football clubs with some great players and some big clubs with big crowds. For any coach that has always got to be the motivation. Can you work at the highest possible level and test yourself?

Finally, in your home country of Wales right now there is euphoria around Gareth Bale and Wales on the brink of sealing qualification to the EURO 2016 championships. How big of a moment is this for soccer in Wales?

Saturday is a huge sporting day for the entire nation in general. We have a huge game against Australia in the Rugby World Cup, followed by an even bigger game for the Welsh national team away at Bosnia in our European Championship campaign. Certainly, Welsh sport at the moment is on a real high and it would be great to see the national team qualify for a major championship. I worked with Gareth Bale as a young kid and he is doing amazing things for himself and for the game in Wales. The staff behind-the-scenes there have worked so hard for so many years to really push the game and develop that team and everyone is really confident now that they will get their reward. It would be awesome for the country to be at a major championship.