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.

Report: Jose Mourinho willing to let Wayne Rooney leave

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United shakes hands with Manager of Manchester United, Jose Mourinho during The FA Community Shield match between Leicester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Wayne Rooney‘s future at Manchester United seems increasingly uncertain.

[ MORE: Tight title race? ]

A report in the Sun newspaper states that United’s captain and talisman, 31, has been told by manager Jose Mourinho that he can leave if it’s regular game time he wants.

Rooney hasn’t started any of United’s last four Premier League games and was left out of their squad for the 4-0 thumping at Chelsea last weekend with a small injury.

Per the report, Mourinho has spoken to Rooney’s advisers and has told them he can not guarantee the England national team captain a starting role.

There’s no doubting Rooney’s huge impact at United over the past 12 years since he arrived at Old Trafford. He’s won five Premier League titles, a UEFA Champions League title, two League Cups and an FA Cup.

Rooney is also just three goals shy of breaking the all-time club record for number of goals scored — he has scored 246 times for United in all competitions — which Sir Bobby Charlton has held for over 40 years and although he has this season plus two more on his huge contract, it seems like he’s reaching a major crossroads in his career.

Even if he is willing to stick around for the final years of his playing days and get stuck into a bit-par role a la Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, you know that Rooney will still make an impact.

The Englishman is stuck in a rut but so are United.

If fit, it would be very surprising to not see him feature heavily in the next few days as United host bitter rivals Manchester City in the EFL last 16 on Wednesday and then Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports).

Griezmann wins best player award in Spain for last season

SEVILLE, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23:  Antoine Griezmann of Club Atletico de Madrid looks on during the match between Sevilla FC vs Club Atletico de Madrid as part of La Liga at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuanon October 23, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
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VALENCIA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann has won the best player award in the Spanish league for last season.

The Atletico Madrid forward was announced as the winner in a ceremony organized by La Liga in Valencia on Monday. The Frenchman was not at the ceremony.

[ MORE: Ballon d’Or omissions ]

Atletico also had Diego Simeone win the best coach award, Diego Godin earn the best defender award, and Jan Oblak clinch best goalkeeper.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi was selected as the best forward, and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric as the best midfielder.

Team captains voted for the top players in each position, while a data-analysis system generated the best player award.

Barcelona won the Spanish league last season, ahead of Real Madrid and Atletico.

Biggest omissions from the Ballon d’Or shortlist

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (R) is chased by N'Golo Kante of Chelsea (L)  during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

France Football released the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or award given to the world’s best player.

As expected in a EURO year, there are several Portuguese standouts to go with the usual suspects.

There are also some odd omissions.

[ MLS: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s second-leading scorer as the Gunners finished second in the Premier League, and the South American attacker scored three goals as Chile won its second-straight Copa America, this one on American soil. It’s baffling that he’s not on the list.

N'Golo Kante enjoyed a season as the engine of the best story in Premier League history, manning the midfield for Leicester, and followed it up by helping France reach the EURO 2016 final. Pretty good, right?

Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic were key pieces in Barcelona’s run to the La Liga crown despite being limited by the transfer ban. Mascherano followed it up by captaining Argentina to the Copa America Centenario final, while Rakitic starred alongside Ivan Perisic as Croatia won a tricky EURO 2016 group before falling to eventual winners Portugal.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11: Fernando Torres of Club Atletico de Madrid is surrounded by (L-R) Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on January 11, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Mascherano (far left) and Rakitic (second from right) are among several Barcelona players who didn’t make the cut (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images).

Harry Kane may’ve not been a good choice to take corner for England, but he also was one of the best all-around attackers in the world as Tottenham surged into the Top Four of the Premier League.

With four goalkeepers making the cut, it shows that club success is more important than performance. David De Gea‘s season was certainly on the same plane as Buffon, though the latter won the league with Juventus and edged Spain at EURO 2016.

Marcelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and David Silva were also players who succeeded for both club and country and could’ve found their way onto the 30.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Finally, let’s see how I fared in projecting the 30 men back in mid-September:

— I got 24 on the nose, wrongly guessing that Kante, Kane, Alexis, Mascherano, Rakitic, and Olivier Giroud would make the cut. Giroud led Arsenal and France in scoring, but if Alexis wasn’t going to make it the coiffed Frenchman had no hope.

— Of the six I didn’t get, only one brings me great shame: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should’ve been in the first 15 names on any list, not missing the post entirely. Paulo Dybala is a bit of a shocker from the crew, and Koke is a tricky miss. Luka Modric was our No. 31, while Rui Patricio was our 35. Diego Godin was a bad miss.

— What to learn from this: Atletico Madrid was obviously credited for its return to the UCL final, so Godin and Koke prove that carried a bit more weight than Kante and Giroud making the final with France, and Alexis thriving at the Copa America.

Whose historic hiccup was worse: Portland or Columbus?

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 6: Kei Kamara #23 of Columbus Crew and Liam Ridgewell #24 of Portland Timbers go after a ball during the second half of the game at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Timbers won the match 2-1. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
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It’s been less than a year since we discussed who was best suited to return to the MLS Cup Final following Portland’s 2-1 win over Columbus in the 2015 title match.

Now we’re wondering who’s fall was more shameful, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew each missed the playoffs, just over 11 months after contesting the final. That’s never happened before.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

We asked our staff to take a stand on the matter of who flubbed worse: Gregg Berhalter’s Crew or Caleb Porter’s Timbers.

Andy Edwards

Columbus: 2016 was Gregg Berhalter’s third season in charge in Columbus, and in each of his first two years, Crew SC took a gigantic step forward — from non-playoff side to in the playoffs in 2014; from young, naive playoff team to MLS Cup hosts in 2015 — which meant 2016 was supposed to be the culmination of a truly great revolution in Columbus.

They started the season slow, with no wins in their first five games. But they had done the same thing just 12 months earlier and there they were playing for the Cup in December. The Crew looked to be slowly turning this season’s corner when the Kei Kamara/Federico Higuain thing exploded and effectively ended their season in May.

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The big knock on Crew SC last year, at least for me, was that they never seemed to figure out a Plan B — if “hit it long for Kei, he’ll knock it down, and Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram will run onto it and toss the alley-oop back to him inside the six” wasn’t working, you’d already beaten them.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

2016 exposed Berhalter, perhaps more than any player on the roster, because of the elongated nature of those struggles — literally the entire season. Finlay (6 goals, 9 assists) and Meram (5 goals, 13 assists) put up fine numbers once again, but they rang hollow for a losing team going nowhere all season long.

Wil Trapp’s age-23 season was completely wasted — he’s no longer “a young player” — and I’d take a long, hard look at Europe this winter if I were him. The defense has been an unmitigated disaster the last two season (53 and 58 goals conceded), mostly due to the all-out attacking nature of Berhalter’s game plans — hint: defending 2-on-4 against counter-attacks almost never ends well. The “other” Kamara, Ola, actually panning out was the saving grace that kept them within a mile of the playoff race.

Nick Mendola

Portland: Maybe it’s an odd year thing; Portland won the 2015 MLS Cup after claiming the West’s best record in 2013.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Timbers ran out of luck under newly-extended Caleb Porter in his fourth season on the job. This time, no one bailed them out.

Portland came out of nowhere to claim the West’s No. 1 seed in 2013, as Porter engineered an astounding 15 draws including 10 on the road. The tactics and lineup selection helped, but so did the arrivals of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson (pretty important, no?).

The Timbers missed the playoffs by a point in 2014, a 3W-1D end to the season not enough to make up for a horrible start to the season.

The next season saw the Timbers win it all, but not without needing a three-match winning streak to leap ahead of four teams and claim the third-seed (Seattle, LA, and KC all finished two points back). Six games later, they went from almost out to on top of the MLS world.

So what happened this year, with many falling all over ourselves to praise the long-term prospects of a Timbers dynasty? A giant failure. The Timbers failed to win a single road game, tossing aside their strong home field advantage (Portland was 12W-3L-2T at Providence Park).

SANDY, UT - APRIL 19: Head coach Caleb Porter of the Portland Timbers encourages his team during their game against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium April 19, 2014 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

The Timbers scored the second-most penalties in the league this year, with five, so it’s not like fortune avoided them (The Red Bulls didn’t score one).

But, oh, this was ugly.

Portland took three of its the final 12 points available to it. The Timbers lost big in Vancouver and Houston, two non-playoff destinations. In its last 13 games, Portland lost nine and won four.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

The Timbers completed the fewest passes in Major League Soccer, 400 less than the closest competitor and 4,300 behind the league-leading Revs. Portland couldn’t take the ball away, either, with the second-fewest interceptions in the league.

You could even argue that losing 4-1 in Vancouver on Decision Day — a loss to a knocked-out Cascadia Cup rival — makes it worse than Columbus’ season alone. This was awful stuff, albeit schadenfreude for the anti-Porter brigade.

Oh, and they bombed out of a poor CONCACAF Champions League group without a Liga MX or MLS opponent in it.

Alright, so Andy tabbed Columbus and Nick took Portland. Let’s get a tiebreaker in here.

Matt Reed

Every champion has a target on its back but the Timbers managed to essentially bring back all of its key starters from a season ago, despite losing Maxi Urruti. The Timbers were involved in 22 games separated by one goal or less in 2016, with Caleb Porter’s side winning only seven of those contests. Had one more game gone in their favor the Timbers would likely be back in the postseason.