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’s 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.

PL Sunday preview: Spurs-Man City; Man United, Arsenal in action

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Four-game Sundays are something of a rare sight in the Premier League, thus we must cherish such an occurrence when the soccer gods are kind enough to bestow upon us a four-game slate of fixtures like the one which awaits us this Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Manchester United vs. Stoke City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

With Wayne Rooney dropped from the starting lineup last weekend, Man United looked the best Red Devils side since — dare we say it — Sir Alex Ferguson retired. That’s all well and good, until Jose Mourinho has to pick his next starting XI for a PL fixture, Sunday against bottom-of-the-league Stoke City. The United and England captain has played in over 500 games for the club (all competitions), and scored nearly 250 goals, yet he’s no longer an automatic starter for the club. Not by coincidence, Paul Pogba scored his first United goal playing in Rooney’s regular position, just behind the striker, which is something he’ll be expected to continue doing as the most expensive signing in the history of the world.

As for the Potters, it’s been a miserable start to the season — yet to win a game; just two points from six games — and Mark Hughes will undoubtedly be wondering, “Am I in danger of being fired?” The answer is simple, Mark: yes, if you’re still at or near the bottom of the league in a month’s time. The elusive first trio of points looked on the cards last weekend, but a 91st-minute equalizer scored by Salomon Rondon extended Stoke’s winless start to the campaign. The last time Stoke won at Old Trafford, in any competition, the date was April 21, 1976.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Key wins for Chelsea, Liverpool ]


Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Six weeks into the season, there are exactly two remaining unbeaten sides in the PL: Man City and Tottenham, who sit first and third in the league table, respectively, heading into Sunday’s showdown at White Hart Lane. For the second straight season, Mauricio Pochettino‘s Spurs possess the league’s best defensive record (three goals conceded), with Pep Guardiola‘s City a close second (five, level with Everton). The two managers know each other well, from their days as Catalonian rivals, at Espanyol and Barcelona, respectively. Pochettino has managed just one win in seven all-time meetings (to Guardiola’s four), though the Argentine has never taken a side as talented as this Spurs squad into a clash with his Spanish counterpart either.

Both sides will be without key figures, with Harry Kane (ankle ligament damage) and Kevin De Bruyne (hamstring) out weeks beyond Sunday’s duel at the Lane. Nolito (suspension) and Vincent Kompany (hamstring) will also be unavailable for City, while the quartet of Mousa Dembele (hamstring), Eric Dier (hamstring), Danny Rose (hamstring) and Moussa Sissoko (concussion) will all face late fitness tests to determine their status on the day. Heung-Min Son has shouldered the goal-scoring load in Kane’s absence, tallying five times in five games (all competitions). City’s 100-percent record is on the line, against a side that turned them over twice in 2015-16, by a combined score of 6-2.

[ MORE: WATCH — PL Download celebrates Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal ]


Leicester City vs. Southampton — 9:15 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com

The defending champions, Leicester, are due a victory on Sunday, if their recent form is any indication. The Foxes have alternated wins and losses — both defeats coming via 4-1 scorelines — over their last four games, with the latest thrashing delivered by Man United last weekend. They’ve managed to hit the ground running in their maiden UEFA Champions League voyage (two wins in two), but the early-season league form has all but removed Claudio Ranieri‘s side from this season’s title race. Southampton, meanwhile, have found their footing under (another) new manager, Claude Puel, with back-to-back wins (and clean sheets) after a four-game winless skid to start the season.

[ MORE: Conte revels in Chelsea’s intensity in win at Hull ]


Burnley vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Name a time in the last decade in which Arsenal looked more fluid, more balanced, and more ruthless with every foray into the final third. You’d be hard-pressed to do so after recent performances — four straight PL wins, by a combined score of 12-3, including last weekend’s demolition of Chelsea. Throw in the fact Arsene Wenger is celebrating 20 years in charge of the Gunners this weekend, and all of that equals another dominant Arsenal victory, right? Of course, because Arsenal have never once fallen flat on their face when you least expected them to do so.

Burnley have already claimed a pair of impressive scalps — Liverpool and Watford — at Turf Moor this season, which is critical for the Clarets, because they’ve been woeful away from home (two losses in two, both by 3-0 scorelines). With the second-fewest goals scored (five) in the PL this season, Sean Dyche will pin his side’s hopes on a potential third clean sheet of the season.

Ilkay Gundogan returns to Germany squad for qualifiers

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 28: IIkay Gundogan of Manchester City in action during the UEFA Champions League match between Celtic FC and Manchester City FC at Celtic Park on September 28, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
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FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) Ilkay Gundogan will return for Germany after nearly a year out with various injuries for World Cup qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland.

The Manchester City midfielder last played for Germany in a friendly against France on Nov. 13, the night of multiple attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

[ MORE: PST talks with Michael Bradley ]

Gundogan missed the European Championship in France.

Striker Mario Gomez and defender Jerome Boateng are also back after injuries at the European Championship.

Germany began its defense of the World Cup title with a 3-0 win in Norway. The team plays the Czechs in Hamburg on Oct. 8 and Northern Ireland three days later in Hannover.

Germany is the favorite to win Group C and qualify directly for the 2018 tournament in Russia.

WATCH: New PL Download — Celebrating Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal

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In an era where managers are frequently hired and fired barely 12 months apart, Arsene Wenger has managed to stay afloat — and thrive like few others have done — for 20 years today, Saturday, October 1.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

It’s an unbelievable milestone for the Frenchman, who will finish the 2016-17 season just shy of 1,200 games managed at the club. For the latest episode of Premier League Download, NBC Sports’ Roger Bennett sat down one-on-one with the Gunners’ legendary boss (above video).

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Key wins for Chelsea, Liverpool ]

Their conversation was wide-ranging, from Wenger’s early days at the club, to the world-class players he’s had the privilege of working with, to his personal philosophy about what it takes to be a successful manager.

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern draws, Dortmund loses; Chicharito on fire (video)

Dortmund's Christian Pulisic and Leverkusen's Charles Aranguiz, from left, challenge for the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Bayern Munich dropped rare points but increased its lead on the field, as Borussia Dortmund fell at Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.

[ MORE: PST talks with Michael Bradley ]

Javier Hernandez made sure he out-CONCACAFed Christian Pulisic, scoring for Bayer in the win. USMNT back Timmy Chandler also went 90 minutes in a loss, as did Mexico’s Marco Fabian.

Bayern Munich 1-1 FC Koln

Joshua Kimmich’s 40th minute goal looked to have lifted Bayern out of its doldrums after the Bavarians fell to Atletico Madrid at midweek, but Anthony Modeste scored his fifth goal in six matches to give Koln a point at the Allianz Arena.

Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 Borussia Dortmund

Someone tapped Bayer out of its long early season nap, as Admir Mehmedi’s 10th minute goal combined with a disciplined, physical performance for the hosts to scoop up three points. Mexico’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez enters the international break in fine form after adding his seventh goal in all competitions this season.

USMNT teen Christian Pulisic got another start for BVB, and was waylaid with a knee to the back. The 18-year-old American came through the scare fine, but had a mostly anonymous match as his team struggled against a game home side.

Hertha Berlin 2-0 Hamburger SV

Vedad Ibisevic made it four goals in his last two outings as Hertha scored in both halves of a home win.

Darmstadt 2-2 Werder Bremen

Serge Gnabry had a great Olympics, and many were surprised when Arsenal allowed him to go back home to Germany. He’s picked up where he’s left off, joining Lamine Sane on the scoresheet in a 2-2 road draw.

Ingolstadt 1-2 Hoffenheim

Sandro Wagner and Kerem Demirbay scored for the visitors, whose clean sheet was spoiled in injury time by a Lukas Hinterseer penalty kick. USMNT midfielder Alfredo Morales did not make the 18 for Ingolstadt.

Freiburg 1-0 Eintracht Frankfurt

Vincenzo Grifo scored in the fourth minute, and it was all the hosts needed to pick up three points. USMNT back Timmy Chandler went 90 minutes in the loss.

Sunday’s matches
Wolfsburg vs. Mainz — 9:30 a.m. ET
Schalke vs. Monchengladbach — 11:30 a.m. ET

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 6 5 1 0 16 2 14 3-1-0 2-0-0 16
 Hertha BSC Berlin 6 4 1 1 11 7 4 3-0-0 1-1-1 13
 Borussia Dortmund 6 4 0 2 16 6 10 3-0-0 1-0-2 12
 1. FC Köln 6 3 3 0 10 3 7 2-1-0 1-2-0 12
 RB Leipzig 6 3 3 0 11 5 6 2-1-0 1-2-0 12
 Mönchengladbach 5 3 1 1 10 6 4 3-0-0 0-1-1 10
 Bayer Leverkusen 6 3 1 2 10 7 3 2-1-0 1-0-2 10
 1899 Hoffenheim 6 2 4 0 11 9 2 1-2-0 1-2-0 10
 Eintracht Frankfurt 6 3 1 2 8 6 2 2-1-0 1-0-2 10
 SC Freiburg 6 3 0 3 7 9 -2 3-0-0 0-0-3 9
 FSV Mainz 05 5 2 1 2 12 11 1 0-1-1 2-0-1 7
 FC Augsburg 6 2 1 3 5 8 -3 1-0-2 1-1-1 7
 VfL Wolfsburg 5 1 2 2 4 7 -3 0-1-1 1-1-1 5
 Darmstadt 6 1 2 3 4 12 -8 1-2-0 0-0-3 5
 Werder Bremen 6 1 1 4 7 17 -10 1-0-2 0-1-2 4
 FC Ingolstadt 04 6 0 1 5 3 12 -9 0-0-3 0-1-2 1
 Hamburger SV 6 0 1 5 2 12 -10 0-1-2 0-0-3 1
 FC Schalke 04 5 0 0 5 2 10 -8 0-0-2 0-0-3 0