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

One-On-Ones: Rico vs. Becks highlights key MLS Cup battles

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LOS ANGELES — Asked on Thursday why he was so sure Ricardo Clark could adjust to his new role, Dominic Kinnear didn’t exactly dodge the question. He simplified it.

“I didn’t want to take Adam (Moffat) out of the team,” the Dynamo head coach said when asked why he thought Clark, returning after a spell with Freiburg in Germany, could excel outside of the deeper role he played with Houston’s 2006, 2007 MLS Cup champions.

“Adam can’t do what Rico does, as far as going forward. But Rico can sit in that hole, but you’re taking a little bit away from his game.”

That little bit will be on display on Saturday. Playing on top of Moffat in (what will likely be) a two-man midfield, Clark will be responsible for the high pressure that’s essential to Houston’s plans for stopping Galaxy distributor David Beckham.

And although MLS fans have become used the the notion Beckham is no longer his 2011 MLS Best XI-self (let alone the man capable of playing for AC Milan, as he did during the first years of his Galaxy tenure), hearing Kinnear describe Beckham’s virtues underscores the importance of Clark’s role.

“Don’t give him time,” Kinnear identifies as the first key to limiting Beckham’s influence. “If he does have time, make sure you stay with runners, because he’s not looking to play a possession pass. A lot of the time he’s looking to play a pass that’s trying to hurt you.

“(You’ve) got to make sure you make him get his head down, if you can. Put pressure on him. Try and get him to play sideways. You can’t give him the lanes to pass the ball because more often than not he’s going to pick the right pass, and he’s probably going to complete it, too.”

Clark is faster than Beckham. If he’s not as strong, he certainly uses his physicality more effectively. He covers more ground, has the freedom to do so, and thanks to the help Moffat gets from two wide midfielders (Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia) comfortable playing through the middle for long periods of time, Clark can be dogged and single-minded when battling LA’sΒ regista.

“I always say, you give him time, he’s still the best passer of the ball in the world,” Kinnear says of Beckham. “I don’t know if there’s anybody out there that (is better) over 20 yards, 30 yards, 40 yards. He’s still a wonderful player.”

But he’s also one ill-equipped to deal with Clark. If you’re looking for a reason to pick an upset at MLS Cup, consider how Los Angeles manages its transition if Clark contains Beckham.

Yet it may not be as easy as noting Clark’s speed, strength and athleticism relative to the 2012 version of David Beckham. In last season’s final, Beckham was arguably Los Angeles’s best player, with many experts marveling at his continued ability to raise his performance when the stakes are highest.

There’s no higher stakes on the MLS stage a winner-take-all farewell match. Don’t be surprised if Beckham finds a way to turn this matchup on its head.

source: Getty Images
This year, Houston’s MVP gets to play.

Three other matchups to watch

Brad Davis vs. Sean Franklin
Boniek Garcia vs. Todd Dunivant

Defensively, there’s no left back in the league you’d rather have than Todd Dunivant, whose 2011 contributions were so revered as to earn him a rare fullback’s spot in the league’s Best XI. Boniek Garcia, however, would be a tough match up for anybody, his combination of speed, intellect and industry able to beat players more fleet of foot than the Galaxy all-star.

Those qualities will be most dangerous off the ball, particularly when Brad Davis is working on the left against Sean Franklin.

When last we saw the Galaxy right back, he was on the wrong end of an awakening from Seattle’s Steve Zakuani. While you may not find two more different left midfielders than Davis and Zakuani, the Dynamo MVP is just as capable of taking advantage of another Franklin downturn.

And if that happens, Calen Carr’s going to be dangerous at the far post after Will Bruin occupies Omar Gonzalez. Rico Clark, already advanced, will have his chance to make an impact crashing the area. And Garcia, if he can out-work and out-run Dunivant, will be begging for a ball rolled toward the spot.

Robbie Keane vs. Bobby Boswell

Keane’s movement means both Boswell and left-center half Jermaine Taylor must have great games to give Houston a chance, but it is Boswell that will make the calls, guidance that also extends to where Moffat’s position in midfield. With Keane and Landon Donovan frequently dropping in front of the opponent’s deepest midfielder to receive the ball, Moffat’s ability to protect his teammates is dependent on good information from Boswell.

“He’s always played next to a good partner,” Kinnear says of Boswell, partially explaining why his strong 2012 has been largely overlooked. “But he guides guys in the right direction.”

That guidance has been even more crucial since U.S. international Geoff Cameron was sold to England’s Stoke City this summer.

“[Boswell’s] had a good season for us. Good talker. Reads the game well. Steps into the midfield at the right times … Smart player.”

On Saturday, intelligence may be Boswell’s most important trait. Keane’s not big, and he’s not especially strong or fast, but in the timing and execution of his runs — his movement — Keane’s unparalleled in MLS. It’s the trait that’s led to 22 all-competition goals this season and helped create the goal that sunk Houston in last year’s final.

Most worrisome, it’s a trait that’s near-impossible to prepare for in training. Kinnear can’t just take Will Bruin, Calen Carr, or Mac Kandji and ask them to play Keane in practice. All he can do is make the nature of the challenge clear to Boswell, Taylor and Moffat.

Barcelona cruise past Sevilla, lift historic 4th straight Copa del Rey

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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MADRID (AP) Barcelona became the first team in 85 years to win four straight Copa del Rey titles after blowing away Sevilla 5-0 in the final on Saturday.

Luis Suarez scored twice, and Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Philippe Coutinho also made the scoresheet for Barcelona’s record-extending 30th Copa triumph, and sixth in the last decade.

Sevilla was trying to win a sixth Copa and save a season which will end without any trophies and maybe not even a place in the Europa League next season.

The final took place at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the capital amid the ongoing political turmoil involving Catalonia’s bid for independence.

There were jeers by part of the Barcelona crowd when the national anthem was played, but the boos were largely subdued by the reaction of the numerous Sevilla fans in the crowd. Spain’s King Felipe VI smiled and saluted the fans after the anthem.

No other team had won four Copa titles in a row since Athletic Bilbao from 1930-33. The only other team to do it was Real Madrid from 1905-08.

Barcelona lost a chance to win the treble when it was eliminated by Roma in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but it is three points away from winning the Spanish league.

PL Sunday preview: Man City’s title trot; Wenger’s farewell tour

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Manchester City will play as the confirmed champions of the Premier League, though they won’t celebrate as such for a couple more weeks, on Sunday. Meanwhile, the only manager Arsenal have known for more than two decades begins saying goodbye…

[ MORE: Man United come back to beat Spurs, reach FA Cup final ]

Arsenal vs. West Ham United β€” 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

So begins the Arsene Wenger farewell tour, and with a London derby at that. Wenger announced on Friday that he’ll leave Arsenal at the end of the current season, which has little to no chance of seeing the Gunners finish in the PL’s top-five, let alone the top-four. Sunday’s clash with West Ham will be the first of Wenger’s three remaining games at the Emirates Stadium, including the Europa League semifinal against Atletico Madrid on Thursday. Unfortunately for Wenger, three of his final five PL games (four of seven in all competitions) will be played away from home, where his side has lost five straight in league play.

Speaking of lost and wayward seasons, 14th-place West Ham are almost mathematically clear of relegation (there’s currently three places and six points between themselves and 18th-place Southampton). It’s hardly the future they imagined upon moving to the London Stadium at the start of last season. Andy Carroll scored the late equalizer in the Hammers’ 1-1 draw with Stoke City on Monday, which rescued perhaps a perfectly timed point with all five remaining games to be played against sides currently in the top-nine (Arsenal, Man City, Leicester, Man United and Everton).

INJURIES: Arsenal β€” OUT:Β Henrikh Mkhitaryan (knee), Santi Cazorla (achilles); QUESTIONABLE: Jack Wilshere (ankle) | West Ham β€” OUT: James Collins (hamstring), Sam Byram (ankle), Winston Reid (knee), Michail Antonio (hamstring), Pedro Obiang (knee)


Stoke City vs. Burnley β€” 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Here’s what’s at stake at the bet365 Stadium on Sunday:

Stoke sit two places and five points adrift of safety from relegation, with four games left to play (17th-place Swansea City have a game in hand, to boot). After 10 seasons in the PL, it’s looking more and more likely that Paul Lambert (with a tip of the cap to Mark Hughes earlier in the season) will take the Potters back to the Championship for the first time since they won promotion in 2008.

Burnley trail Arsenal by just two points (though the Clarets have played one more game than the Gunners) in the race for sixth place. A sixth-place finish would be the club’s highest top-flight finish since 1966 (3rd).

INJURIES: Stoke β€”Β QUESTIONABLE:Β Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting (groin) | Burnley β€” OUT: Steven Defour (knee), Scott Arfield (calf), Robbie Brady (knee), Jonathan Walters (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Ben Mee (knock), Georges-Kevin Nkoudou (hamstring)


Manchester City vs. Swansea City β€” 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

While Man City won’t lift the PL trophy until their May 6 clash with Huddersfield Town, Sunday’s visit from Swansea will be Pep Guardiola‘s side’s first outing since clinching the title courtesy of Man United’s defeat to West Bromwich Albion last weekend. Guardiola’s focus has turned to breaking the all-time PL points record (95 β€” they currently have 87 with five games still to play).

“In the past, I won the league at Bayern and at Barca with five, six or seven games (left) but the next games were not good,” he said this week. “We have to think about how many points we can get, it can be a good argument. What we need to do is already done, the points record is not the most important thing, but maybe it can help us to be focused. It would be uncomfortable to finish in a bad way, there always has to be a target and maybe scoring the most goals and winning the most points will be a good focus.”

INJURIES: Man City β€” OUT: Sergio Aguero (knee), Benjamin Mendy (knee); QUESTIONABLE: John Stones (thigh) | Swansea β€” OUT: Wilfried Bony (knee), Leroy Fer (achilles), Renato Sanches (hamstring)

LAFC erase 2-goal deficits to beat Montreal in 8-goal thriller

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less):Β LAFC are, by definition, an expansion team; they are, to the eye, also very much an expansion team, in that they experience drastic mood swings from one game to the next and, on a number of occasions already this season, from one half to the next β€” or, as evidenced in Saturday’s 5-3 win over Montreal Impact, one 15-minute period to the next. 2-0 down after 16 minutes, Larent Ciman wanted the ground to open up and swallow him whole as his return to Montreal wasn’t going so swimmingly. The Belgian proceeded to score a stunning free kick eight minutes later. Montreal went down to 10 men and Evan Bush saved a penalty in the 33rd minute. Ignacio Piatti completed his hat trick on 43 minutes to restore the two-goal lead. LAFC score four second-half goals to run away with all three points, racking up 26 shots (18 of which were on target) in the process. Through two games this weekend, MLS has seen 14 goals scored.

[ MORE: Sporting KC increase West lead with 6-0 win over VancouverΒ ]

Three Four moments that mattered

24′ β€” Ciman’s free kick just about bursts through the back of the net β€” If not for the net, this ball continues to slowly rise until it cross the U.S.-Canada border and begins to orbit the planet in outer space.

43′ β€” Piatti smashes past Miller for 3-1 β€” Piatti takes his hat trick with aplomb, letting the ball bounce across his body before pulling it back across the face of goal and just inside the far post.

52′ β€” Feilhaber picks out the top corner for 3-2 β€” The comeback is on… again.

83′ β€” Vela bags the winner from the spot β€” Bush denied Marco UreΓ±a from the spot in the first half, and so nearly did it again in the 83rd, but Carlos Vela’s effort crept over the line to make it 4-3.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage | MLS Three ThingsΒ ]

Man of the match: Ignacio Piatti

Goalscorers: Piatti (9′, 16′, 43′), Ciman (24′), Feilhaber (52′), Raitala (57′ – OG), Vela (83′ – PK), Blessing (89′)

Mourinho’s message to Man United’s much-maligned stars

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LONDON — All week the talk was about Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez not being good enough for Manchester United and that they may be left out of the starting lineup for the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley.

On Saturday at Wembley they dragged their team back into the contest and past Tottenham Hotspur to reach the FA Cup final.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

After a shaky start, Pogba’s powerful tackle on Mousa Dembele was followed up by a perfect cross to Sanchez who expertly headed home in, using every last muscle in his neck, to make it 1-1Β in the 24th minute. United never looked back.

Pogba and Sanchez grew stronger as the game wore on and the latter bullied Kieran Trippier for United’s winner as the tireless Chilean speedster ran down a lost cause and helped set up Ander Herrera to score the winner.

The duo have been heavily criticized since the turn of the year with Pogba hauled out of the team by Mourinho, then having to deal with issues such as rumors about his United future following Pep Guardiola‘s claim that Man City were offered the Frenchman in January. While Sanchez has scored just twice in the Premier League since his January move from Arsenal which made him the best paid player in the Premier League and was left out of United’s lineup for the win at Bournemouth on Wednesday.

Mourinho had a message for his much-maligned stars after they stole the show at Wembley: he wants consistency.

“I told Alexis the same thing I told Paul a few weeks ago, I cannot expect my players to be Man of the Match every match. I cannot expect them to score goals every match. I cannot expect them to be perfect every match,” Mourinho said.Β “What I expect is a certain level that you don’t go below that. That level is the level of the basic things in the game. If you do the basic things of the game and then in some matches your talent appears and you makes the difference. That is fine. I am not waiting for Alexis the next match to score again and to be the Man of the Match. I just want him to be stable and I thinkΒ  in Alexis’ case next season gives him much better conditions to be a top player for us.”

Despite their gutsy and pivotal displays, both Pogba and Sanchez (the Man of the Match) still showed glimpses of their poor form with wasteful passes from Sanchez and slack defensive play, early on, from Pogba. Their confidence still remains brittle but at least they showed their talent when it mattered most.

But the main thing is that they dug deep to grind out the win and keep United’s hopes of a piece of silverware this season alive. That is what top players do and both delivered, even if Pogba’s United future remains uncertain beyond this season. This was a game where the duo showed Mourinho they could be trusted to dig deep and after they combined for United’s equalizer they grew in confidence and, most importantly, did the dirty work to help United reach the final.

Pogba and Sanchez aside, Mourinho was keen to ask why United have so many critics, even though they are on course to finish second in the Premier League this season and the fact that he has reached his third major final out of six tries since he arrived at the club in the summer of 2016.

“This season is successful if we finish second. If we do a better Premier League than Spurs, Liverpool Chelsea and Arsenal, if we do that I think it is successful,” Mourinho said. “To break the 80-point target to finish second against an untouchable winner is good. To make a lot more points than last season to win more matches, to score more goals, to concede less goals, to have much better results against the top teams I think is a successful teams.”