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.

Luan, Gremio looks to dethrone Real Madrid at Club World Cup

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“He’s a wonderful person. He’s got lots of titles, so maybe he can just leave this one to us.”

That’s Gremio youngster Luan after being told Real Madrid star and countryman Marcelo said he has a huge future in the game.

Luan and his teammates could make a lot more noise with a win in Saturday’s Club World Cup final against Real.

[ MORE: Galaxy to acquire Bingham? ]

Gremio edged Pachuca in extra time of its semifinal after Real came back to beat Al Jazira, and now hopes to become just the second non-European club to win the Club World Cup since 2007.

Brazilian clubs won the first three CWCs between 2000-06, but Corinthians claimed the lone Brazilian title since when it beat Chelsea in 2012.

Spanish clubs have won the last three finals, with Real sandwiching two around Barca’s 2015 win over River Plate.

The 24-year-old Luan won Olympic gold with Brazil in 2016, and has two caps with the national team.

Still waiting for these Premier League summer transfers to hit

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They seemed like hits at the time, but some significant summer transfer buys are are struggling in the Premier League.

[ MORE: LAFC close to signing third DP ]

Whereas Mohamed Salah, Nemanja Matic, and Alvaro Morata have been solid pickups, and even lesser moves like Kurt Zouma to Stoke and Grzegorz Krychowiak to West Brom have hit the spot, some purchases just have not panned out at their new clubs.

Some aren’t getting playing time, while others aren’t hitting their stride, but here are some moves which just haven’t paid off (yet).

Andre Gray, Watford — The striker has two goals and two assists, but has had problems keeping hold of the ball and has the same amount of goals as defender Daryl Janmaat and midfielder Will Hughes despite playing about 300 percent of their minutes.

Marko Arnautovic, West Ham — The ex-Stoke player was a menace in a midweek draw against Arsenal, but Arnautovic has managed just one goal for the Irons this season. That’s equal to his amount of red cards.

Renato Sanches and Roque Mesa, Swansea City — Sanches hasn’t been able to get into the squad despite being one of the more talked about loans of the summer; Mesa may be coming around in recent weeks, but was an unused sub or not in the squad in 10 of Swans’ first 13.

Jese, Stoke City – The Real Madrid attacker was almost certain to take time to adjust to the Premier League, but his match-winner against Arsenal on Opening Day remains his lone marker.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Liverpool — His deadline day move to join Liverpool, supposedly to play centrally, seemed a head-scratcher. He’s only recently seen consistent minutes in a more central role despite Liverpool having loads of problems there. Maybe that’s on Jurgen Klopp, but we’re still scratching our heads.

Report: Galaxy close to scooping up thrice-capped USMNT keeper

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The LA Galaxy may be turning to its Cali Clasico rival for a new goalkeeper.

Reportedly denied in its pursuit of longtime Vancouver backstop David Ousted, the Galaxy are said to be close to scooping up thrice-capped USMNT keeper David Bingham from San Jose, according to ESPN.

[ MORE: LAFC close to signing third DP ]

The deal would reportedly cost LA between $200,000 and $250,000 in TAM.

Bingham, 28, lost his starting gig to Clemson product Andrew Tarbell this season, and the latter looks intent on keeping the position.

The Galaxy have not had a long-term answer in goal since Jaime Penedo left the club in 2015 (though 24-year-old Jon Kempin showed some very good things last season). Bingham would be a fine addition for a Galaxy team that hemorrhaged the second-most goals in MLS.

FIFA worried about government interference in Spain

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation, FIFA said Friday it will send a delegation to the country to investigate government meddling.

FIFA said in a statement written in Spanish that it had recently sent a letter to the federation “expressing our concern for the situation that the federation is going through and reminding (its officials) that, according to the Statutes of FIFA, all member federations must manage their affairs independently and assure that there is no interference by third parties.”

Spanish newspaper El Pais reported earlier Friday that the FIFA letter warned of a possible suspension because of the government’s push to hold elections following the arrest of federation president Angel Maria Villar in July on suspicion of corruption.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

According to El Pais, FIFA is concerned that the government’s interest in federation elections could be considered outside meddling and break its rules. If the national federation were to be suspended, Spain’s team would not be allowed to play at next year’s World Cup.

FIFA’s statement made no mention of a suspension or other punitive measures.

But the scare was big enough for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to say that Spain will not miss soccer’s biggest event.

“I am sure that Spain will go to the World Cup in Russia and that it will win it,” Rajoy said at a news conference in Brussels.

FIFA added in its statement that “in the coming days” it will send a delegation, which will include representatives from UEFA, to Madrid to “observe and analyze the situation” of the Spanish soccer federation.

The federation said in a separate statement that its interim president, Juan Luis Larrea, had spoken with FIFA and UEFA officials at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 and that he had passed on their “enormous concern” to Spain’s minister of education, culture and sport.

The Spanish federation said it was waiting for the ministry to set a date for a meeting.

Spanish police arrested Villar, his son, and two other soccer officials in July on suspicion of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar was replaced by Larrea, the body’s treasurer for three decades. Critics of Villar argue that elections are needed to make a clean start for the institution that has been tarnished by the scandal.