MLS Cup 2012 preview: Houston Dynamo vs. L.A. Galaxy

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CARSON, Calif. – When is the actual result of an MLS Cup final very nearly reduced to a subplot? When the illustrious David Beckham has made it his MLS finale.

And it is quite possibly Landon Donovan’s MLS curtain call, too.

Global soccer’s most iconic figure of the last two decades concludes his six years in Major League Soccer in the league’s 17th MLS Cup. Beckham, 37, has already announced that he will take his preternaturally gifted right foot – is there one more free kick goal in that pricey boot? – and perform elsewhere after Saturday, if only for a short duration.

And what to make of Donovan, the 30-year-old attacker who is the national team’s all-time leading scorer (and on a march to be Major League Soccer’s all-time leading scorer), but who seems a little beaten by it all and keeps dangling the notion of retirement?

And we haven’t even gotten to the Houston Dynamo, a humble and hard-working club that tends to grind out playoff results like no other. The Dynamo, steered so ably by smoothly demanding coach Dominic Kinnear, is in its fourth MLC Cup in seven years.

Houston fell to L.A. in this same matchup last year, 1-0.

Don’t forget, this is the first final played under new MLS playoff rules that award host duty to the finalist with the best record. So the big home field edge goes to the Galaxy – never mind that the weather in Southern California looks and feels a lot like we’re all in rainy Seattle.

(MORE: ProSoccerTalk’s final predictions:)

Saturday’s kickoff: Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif., 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Telefutura

On the Houston Dynamo

  • The game has a chance to look a lot like last year’s, when the Galaxy squeezed out a 1-0 win in a meeting of the very same teams. In the very same building. With roughly the same weather. So it could once again be frustratingly cautious, as finals tend to be. Plus, both teams are good at waiting out the other fellow, careful not to make a mistake while waiting to pounce on one.
  • On the other hand, this is a very different Houston Dynamo team. Added since last year’s final are right-sided attacker Oscar Boniek Garcia and ground covering midfield specialist Ricardo Clark. Plus, the team’s four-time MVP, Brad Davis, will be on the field this year. Last year’s loss came as Davis watched from the sideline, injured.
  • Somewhat forgotten is that Houston also played the 2011 final with four center backs across the defense. Andrew Hainault was on the right, Jermaine Taylor on the left; both were in fill-in capacity due to other injuries. Thus, Houston’s ability to attack up the flanks was severely pinched.
  • So the Dynamo has the opportunity to apply far more pressure on L.A. this year. “We should be a lot more aggressive this time,” midfielder Adam Moffat said. “Last year, we created very few real chances, to be honest.”
  • Kinnear’s men are as healthy as they’ve been in a long time. Clark and Moffat, the preferred central midfielders, are training at full capacity after some recent injury worries. Calen Carr is back on the field, too, giving Kinnear a more pacey option for selection at forward.
  • Striker Will Bruin has four playoff goals, just one behind MLS post-season leader Robbie Keane.
  • You cannot talk about the Dynamo without mentioning how dangerous Davis and his pinpoint set piece deliveries have been for years. In most estimations, the veteran lefty is the second best restart specialist in MLS – after Beckham.
  • Davis has contributed directly (scored or assisted) on 20 Dynamo goals over each of the last two years.

(MORE: Oscar Boniek Garcia’s potential impact)

(MORE: Houston Dynamo 2012 vs. 2011 – not even close)

(MORE: Brad Davis says MLS Cup 2012 is not about revenge)

(MORE: Deconstructing the Houston Dynamo success)

On the Los Angeles Galaxy

  • Said Beckham, about the run-up to his final MLS contest: “It’s been an enjoyable week…. I am quite an emotional person. I know I will feel more emotion probably the day of the game. Maybe the night before the game. But I am really excited about the game itself. To be in third MLS Cup final, especially one being played in our own stadium, I am excited. And it’s going to be special.”

(MORE: David Beckham says goodbye to MLS)

  • Beckham has evolved into more of a support player this year. He can still ping the pretty passes accurately over 60 yards, and the Dynamo players know so. Clark will be tasked with applying early pressure on the former England captain. Beckham will idle a little deeper in the midfield, not making quite as many thrusts forward, not quite as many overlapping runs around the right side, etc. Whereas last year he was more a “playmaker-distributor,” this year’s Beckham’s role is more “distributor-playmaker.”
  • Donovan, as he has most of his career, has lined up recently as an outside midfielder or as a second forward alongside Irish international Robbie Keane. It’s mostly about whether Galaxy coach Bruce Arena prefers midfielder Christian Wilhelmsson or forward Edson Buddle in the starting lineup; Donovan will fill the other spot.
  • Arena has a choice to make at center back, where rookie Tommy Meyer or far more experienced A.J. DeLaGarza will start alongside commanding center back Omar Gonzales. DeLaGarza is training now but has not played in two months.
  • Mike Magee has become “Mr. November,” so nicknamed for his tendency to contribute the big playoff goals. His late runs into the penalty area from the left side tend to be expertly timed.
  • And speaking of movement around the penalty area, Keane’s choices on where to go find the ball and his ability to create defensive confusion over the last two or three months has been as good as any forward in MLS. Ever.
  • Keane (16 goals, 9 assists) and Donovan (9 goals, 14 assists) were MLS Best XI selections. Gonzalez almost surely would have been but for missing half the season through injury.
  • Is this the “last hurrah” for a uniquely starry Galaxy side? Donovan said they aren’t thinking about that. “Any team from year to year has lots of turnover. That’s the way sports are. That’s the way other leagues are. So we’re just excited about the game tomorrow. Not many teams have a chance to do what we have a chance to do, and we want to make the most of that.”
  • L.A. is attempting to become the first back-to-back league champions since Houston won in 2006 and 2007.

(MORE: Which version of the Galaxy shows up Saturday)

(MORE: David Beckham’s pre-match press conference)

(MORE: The Galaxy’s center back choice)

(MORE: Donovan mum on his future)

(MORE: Comparing Galaxy 2011 vs. 2012)

Bottom line:

A Galaxy team with Beckham, Donovan and Keane at full rev, with Gonzalez properly policing the back line, would be extremely difficult to beat, especially at home. But all of that has not happened consistently in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Kinnear-coached teams know just how to reach that final gear in the post-season. They managed to make things very hard on the Galaxy in last year’s final despite being severely under-strength.

Houston can expect to create a few chances. So will Los Angeles, with Keane at the tip-top of his game. Look for a close and fairly cautious match – and don’t be surprised if this one is 1-1 after 90 minutes, needing an extra 30 minutes and possibly even penalty kicks to declare a winner.

PL title & FA Cup in sight, Conte says Chelsea still rebuilding

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Antonio Conte might be just seven games away from guiding Chelsea to a Premier League and FA Cup double this season, but the Blues’ first-year Italian manager insists his squad is nowhere near being a finished product.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking after Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal triumph over Tottenham Hotspur, Conte insisted that the team he inherited last summer, after a disastrous 10th-place finish in the PL, is “in a period of transition” and that “[they] need time” as the club moves on from an accomplished, foundational generation — quotes from Sky Sports:

“I think that now at Chelsea we are in a period of transition. In this season, we have lost (Branislav) Ivanovic, (John Obi) Mikel and next season we lose John Terry.

“We are talking about players who wrote the history of this club. They won a lot. Now we have to find the right substitutes for these players and then work to put these players at the same level.

“I think that in the period with Carlo (Ancelotti) — and Carlo is the best Italian coach, I have great respect for him — he arrived at Chelsea when they had a really strong squad. Now we are building. We are building something important. We need time.”

[ MORE: Kante takes home PFA Player of the Year | Dele wins Young Player ]

Conte is doing two things with the above comments: 1) he’s tempering expectations for next season, when Chelsea will be back in the UEFA Champions League and automatically expected to repeat as PL champions — not to mention, taking a bit of pressure off in these final two months of the 2016-17 season; and, 2) pointing out just how impressive his work to date has been, the fact he’s potentially seven games away from lifting two trophies in seven days’ time next month.

Ligue 1: Mbappe, Falcao fire Monaco top again

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PARIS (AP) Strikers Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe continued their fine form with a goal each to help Monaco secure a 2-1 win at Lyon and reclaim top spot in the French league on Sunday.

Monaco moves above defending champion Paris Saint-Germain on goal difference, with Monaco having played a game less. PSG has four games left.

“It wasn’t easy and it was a big win for us tonight,” Monaco center half Andrea Raggi said. “We all play for each other and it’s now or never.”

It has been an astonishing season for Monaco, which has now scored 143 goals in all competitions and remains on course for the treble. Monaco faces PSG in the French Cup semifinals next Wednesday.

Falcao and Mbappe scored in midweek when Monaco beat German side Borussia Dortmund 3-1 in the return leg of their Champions League quarterfinal to reach the last four 6-3 on aggregate.

Lyon also did well in Europe, going through on penalty kicks away to Turkish club Besiktas to reach the last four in the Europa League.

Falcao and the 18-year-old Mbappe have combined for 51 goals.

Falcao put Monaco ahead in the 36th minute with a header from close range – his 28th goal of the season – and Mbappe made it 2-0 just before halftime with a trademark surging run and cool finish for his 23rd.

“I just try and give my best whenever I play,” said Mbappe, who has recently been called into the France team. “I wasn’t playing much at the start of the season, so I’m still quite fresh and I hope I can help us win the remaining games.”

PSG beat Montpellier 2-0 at home on Saturday with Edinson Cavani scoring his 31st league goal of the season and 44th overall.

Nice has already guaranteed third place and a spot in the qualifying round for next season’s Champions League.

But with four games remaining, it is six points behind Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. Nice hosts PSG next Sunday.

Striker Corentin Jean gave mid-table Toulouse the lead in the 57th minute. Midfielder Valentin Eysseric continued his fine form with the equalizer three minutes later.

The game was briefly halted early in the first half after a group of Saint-Etienne supporters forced themselves into the stadium.

The match was supposed to be played behind closed doors as a punishment for unruly supporters during Saint-Etienne’s local derby against Lyon.

After a brief delay for police to remove the fans, Slovakia striker Robert Beric put the home side ahead in the 39th and center half Edson Mexer leveled just before the break.

Saint-Etienne is in seventh place, while Rennes is ninth.

Serie A: Napoli waste chance to go 2nd; Juve win big (again)

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MILAN (AP) Arkadiusz Milik scored his first goal since his lengthy injury layoff but it wasn’t enough to prevent Napoli from drawing 2-2 at Sassuolo on Sunday and missing the chance to move second in Serie A.

Milik scored two minutes after coming off the bench to rescue a point for Napoli and move it to within one point of second-placed Roma, which visits bottom club Pescara on Monday.

Second spot in Serie A secures automatic entry into the Champions League group stage, while the team that finishes third has to go through a playoff.

“The road to second spot has got more difficult, we have to hope our rivals slip up,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said. “We have a point more than last season, even though we played in the Champions League, even though we lost (Gonzalo) Higuain at the beginning of the season and Milik for four months, so I think the team has had an extraordinary season until now.”

After an even first half, Napoli broke the deadlock seven minutes after the break thanks to a rare header from Dries Mertens. It was the diminutive Belgian’s 22nd league goal of the season – as many as he had scored in total in his three previous seasons at Napoli.

However, Napoli gifted Sassuolo the equalizer seven minutes later as Marek Hamsik’s terrible headed backpass to Pepe Reina was intercepted by Domenico Berardi, who fired home from close range.

Mertens almost immediately restored his side’s lead but saw his free kick come off the crossbar, while Lorenzo Insigne’s effort also hit the inside of the post for Napoli.

Sassuolo took the lead 10 minutes from time following a superb save from Reina to deny former Napoli hero Paolo Cannavaro, but Antonino Ragusa hooked the ball back in from the byline for Luca Mazzitelli to drive into the bottom right corner.

Milik was brought on in the 82nd and immediately leveled. Jose Callejon’s corner was knocked down by Raul Albiol and the Poland international spun to fire in from close range for his first goal since he was injured on World Cup duty in October.

AC Milan missed a penalty as the new era at the famous Italian club continued without a win.

Milan drew 2-2 at city rival Inter Milan last weekend in the first match since the $800 million takeover of Milan by Chinese-led Rossoneri Sport Luxembourg ended Silvio Berlusconi’s 31-year reign.

Sunday’s defeat saw Milan remain in the last qualifying spot for the Europa League, two points above Inter.

“If we relate everything to the result, it didn’t go well but I shouldn’t do that,” Milan coach Vincenzo Montella said. “We created 15 chances, it’s difficult to create more in Serie A.”

Empoli took a surprise lead five minutes from halftime when Levan Mchedlidze headed in a corner.

Milan should have leveled shortly before the hour, after Lukasz Skorupski pushed over Mario Pasalic, but the Empoli goalkeeper made up for his error by keeping out Suso’s penalty and then parrying a follow-up effort from Gianluca Lapadula.

Empoli doubled its lead in the 67th when Massimo Maccarone nodded on the ball for Mame Thiam to score his first goal in Italian football.

Lapadula reduced the deficit five minutes later, curling into the bottom corner and Milan had a good chance to level when it was awarded an indirect free kick six yards out from goal after Skorupski got the ball, put it down and picked it back up again.

However, with all the Empoli players on the line, Milan couldn’t equalize.

Milan’s teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma kept his side in the match with a fantastic one-handed save to deny Maccarone and it almost proved decisive as Lucas Ocampos volleyed off the crossbar at the other end.

Keita Balde Diao notched a five-minute hat trick as Lazio crushed Palermo to move back into fourth in Serie A.

Ciro Immobile scored two in as many minutes to put Lazio 2-0 up inside 10 minutes, before Keita’s quickfire treble – including a penalty – ensured the match was all but over with less than half an hour played.

Lazio relaxed and Palermo threatened an unexpected comeback with two goals from Andrea Rispoli in five minutes at the start of the second half.

But Luca Crecco extended Lazio’s lead in the final minute with his first ever senior goal.

Juventus continued its march to an unprecedented sixth successive Serie A title by routing Genoa 4-0 to move 11 points clear of Roma.

Ezequiel Munoz scored an own-goal in the 17th and magnificent strikes from Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic put the hosts 3-0 up at the break. Leonardo Bonucci scored another stunning goal in the 64th after sprinting forward from inside his own half. Juventus also hit the woodwork three times.

Crotone kept its faint hopes of survival alive with a surprise 2-1 win at Sampdoria.

The result left it five points behind 17th-placed Empoli and safety with five matches remaining.

Elsewhere, Torino won 3-1 at Chievo Verona, while Udinese beat Cagliari 2-1.

MLS Snapshot: Sounders cruise, 3-0, as Galaxy struggles continue

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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy’s midfield remains… nonexistent, to put it very nicely. It was a problem in 2015; it was a major problem in 2016; and it remains a problem early in 2017. On Sunday, Curt Onalfo’s side (as a quick aside, no, his seat isn’t yet getting hot) sat by and watched — almost literally — as the Seattle Sounders found the back of the net three times in the first half at StubHub Center.

Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris scored the goals for Seattle, to go with an own goal from Ashley Cole. It’s LA’s fifth loss in seven games, while Seattle have their second win of the season and put to bed a three-game winless skid.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundup — FCD win battle of unbeatens ]

Three moments that mattered

29′ — Dempsey heads into an open net for 1-0 — Nicolas Lodeiro floated the cross toward the back post, and Dempsey made extremely easy work of it with Brian Rowe scrambling through no man’s land.

35′ — Cole applies the finish into his own net — If it happened at the other end of the field, we’d have said it was a cool, calm, composed finish. Alas…

44′ — Morris fires past Rowe for 3-0 — The counter-attack was quick, what with no one stepping to the ball as Seattle covered two-thirds of the field. The finish wasn’t so simple for Morris.

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Man of the match: Clint Dempsey

Goalscorers: Dempsey (29′), Cole (OG – 35′), Morris (44′)