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.

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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.

Jesse Gonzalez completes one-time switch from Mexico to USA

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The U.S. national team has a new goalkeeper: Jesse Gonzalez.

U.S. Soccer confirmed Gonzalez, 22, has had his change of association approved by FIFA as the FC Dallas stopper has switched his international allegiance from Mexico to the U.S.

Born in North Carolina, Gonzalez grew up in Dallas but played for Mexico’s U-20 side in an official competition, meaning he needed a one-time switch from Mexico to the U.S. which was granted. Now, he cannot switch back and he will only be able to represent the U.S. at international level moving forward.

Other players to do this include Jermaine Jones who played for the German national team but switched to the U.S. in 2010, while just last week Gent midfielder Kenny Saief had his one-time switch from Israel to the U.S. approved by FIFA and he will feature in the upcoming Gold Cup tournament.

Gonzalez was on the preliminary U.S. roster for the 2017 Gold Cup which kicks off on July 7 but wasn’t included on the final roster, but he’s still seen as a leading contender to mind the net for the USMNT in the future. Bruce Arena wants added competition for veteran goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, with Nick Rimando, Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid and Ethan Horvath the main contenders as things stand.

Given Gonzalez’s rapid rise from the FCD academy to starting goalkeeper in 2017, he could well be the USA’s future star with Howard likely to retire after the USMNT’s potential World Cup bid in Russia next summer and Guzan 32 years old.

Cincinnati boost MLS hopes with incredible crowd, victory

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32,287 fans packed into Nippert Stadium on Wednesday to see USL side FC Cincinnati beat the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer in U.S. Open Cup Round of 16.

It was the second-largest crowd in U.S. Open Cup history.

Second-tier FC Cincinnati is the hottest story in American soccer right now.

[ MORE: Full US Open Cup roundup ]

On Wednesday Cincinnati won on penalty kicks to embarrass Bastian Schweinsteiger and Co. as the red-hot MLS side came unstuck in front of Cincy’s incredible supporters, with Mitch Hildebrandt saving three penalties to send Cincinnati’s fans wild.

Since their USL debut in 2016 (that’s right, just over 12 months ago) the progress FC Cincinnati has made is startling, first under USMNT legend John Harkes as coach and now under Alan Koch.

With an average crowd of 17,296 for league games in 2016, Cincinnati had crowds of 35,061 for a preseason visit of Crystal Palace last July, 24,376 to watch them play Orlando City B in the USL in September and then 30,187 for a USL playoff defeat to Charleston Battery in October. Palace were blown away by Cincinnati’s support and ProSoccerTalk understands plenty of other Premier League clubs have been interested in including the Ohio city as a stop-off on U.S. tours of their own.

The old saying “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t ring true in Cincinnati. They’re already there.

These attendance numbers are unprecedented at this level, with Sacramento Republic and Orlando City the only two he can come close to the USL records Cincinnati has set over the past 22 months as a club.

With the Ohio city on a shortlist of 12 for the next round of MLS expansion for a $150 million fee, Don Garber and his expansion committee have to sit up and take notice of the incredible progress Cincinnati has made in such a short space of time.

Yes, other cities like Sacramento and San Antonio have now had a strong franchise for many years and the steady attendance figures suggest so, but Cincinnati is blowing all of their expansion competitors out of the water with the scenes witnessed at Nippert time and time again over the past 12 months.

Adding Cincy to MLS makes sense geographically too, as it will help link up Columbus Crew, Sporting KC and Chicago Fire in a mid-west square. Everything about having FC Cincinnati in MLS adds up.

However, the new stadium deal is a must and FC Cincinnati released those plans for a soccer-specific venue earlier this month. However, just like we’ve seen in Atlanta and in Seattle in the past, having an MLS team based at a larger stadium sometimes works. Why couldn’t FC Cincinnati stay at Nippert if they’re packing it out?

All of that remains to be seen but what we do know is that Cincinnati is backing soccer and FCC in a big way. With NASL and USL expanding, lower-league soccer in the U.S. has never been stronger than it is right now.

Goal-machine Jermain Defoe signs for Bournemouth

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Jermain Defoe is back where it all began.

[ MORE: Sanchez to Man City? ]

Bournemouth announced the 34-year-old striker has signed for them on a three-year contract after a release clause in his Sunderland deal was triggered, meaning he could leave for free following the Black Cats’ relegation from the Premier League last season.

Defoe spent a season on loan at Bournemouth as a teenager back in 2000-01 when he was coming through the ranks at West Ham and during his first season as a pro he played with current Cherries manager Eddie Howe, scoring 19 goals in 31 appearances (including a run of 12 goals in 10-straight games) for the then third-tier club.

The England international, who scored 15 times for Sunderland last season, returns with both himself and Bournemouth in a very different situation.

“It’s great to be back and I’m really looking forward to this challenge.” Defoe said. “When the opportunity came about to return to AFC Bournemouth I just knew it was the right one. It was an easy decision, joining a top team with a top manager. It’s a great place to be. The Bournemouth fans know that every time I pull the shirt on I will give 100 per cent, and the one thing I can guarantee is goals.”

Howe added that he was “delighted” that Defoe has returned and said it was a “huge moment” for the club as they continue their progression following a ninth-place finish in the PL last season.

During his distinguished career Defoe has scored goals by the bucket-load wherever he has played. He has 269 goals in 649 total career appearances and he has proven that he still has plenty left in the tank.

Playing for West Ham, Portsmouth, Tottenham, Toronto FC and Sunderland, he is a predator in the box and has kept himself in fine fettle over the years with a vegan diet just one of the ways he has elongated his career. Defoe’s form for Sunderland over the past two-and-a-half seasons has seen him recalled to the English national team in his mid-30s after scoring 37 goals in 93 goals.

He will not only add goals but will also help the development of young strikers Josh King, Benik Afobe and Lys Mousset at the Vitality Stadium.

This move was a no-brainer for both Bournemouth and Defoe as the Cherries continue to strengthen and add PL experience. Asmir Begovic has already arrived as their new starting goalkeeper and Chelsea’s promising defender Nathan Ake, who spent time on loan at Bournemouth last season, is expected to arrive later this week.

Heading into their third season as a PL club, Howe is addressing his needs early and impressively.

Alexis Sanchez to Man City reports gathering steam

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Alexis Sanchez’s future has still not been sorted out but Manchester City are increasingly optimistic he will be playing for them next season.

[ MORE: Ronaldo’s twin sons born

Sanchez, 28, is still on international duty with Chile who have reached the 2017 Confederations Cup final and his Arsenal future is no closer to being sorted with just one year remaining on his current contract with the Gunners.

The Guardian reports that Man City are expecting to seal the $64.7 million deal for Sanchez due to the Chilean’s desire to be reunited with his former boss at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola.

Sanchez and his agent had talks scheduled with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger at the end of the season but with the Gunners not qualifying for the UEFA Champions League next season it appears increasingly likely the oft-frustrated forward will move on this summer with a new contract offer of $324,000 per week reportedly turned down.

Each and every day new stories and snippets emerge on Sanchez’s future but the Chilean star (who scored 24 goals and added 10 assists in the PL last season) rarely gives interviews, leading to increased hype around his situation at Arsenal at every turn.

Previous reports in Chile quoted Sanchez as saying he wanted “to stay in London, but for a club that wins” so Chelsea was his next destination. When Danny Welbeck‘s name was above the No.7 shirt on Arsenal’s website for a brief moment during their new kit launch there was hysteria. Bayern Munich are now said to be out of a deal for Sanchez due to the high transfer price Arsenal is demanding. The list goes on and on and everyone wants to know one thing: will he stay or will he go?

Arsenal’s reluctance to sell to a direct PL rival — especially to City, once again, after they bought Sami Nasri, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna from the Gunners in the past — remains the main sticking point in this deal with the north London club preferring to sell Sanchez overseas to Bayern or PSG rather than see him inspire the attack of a rival in England.

From a pure playing standpoint, a move to City seems perfect for Sanchez.

He gets to play in a fluid front three system and can roam alongside Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and potentially Sergio Aguero. City, and Guardiola, also match his intense hunger to win trophies at any costs and challenge for titles in the PL and Europe, something he hasn’t been able to do at Arsenal. Yes, he has won the FA Cup twice during his three-season stint at the Emirates, but he wants more. He always wants more.

That’s why seeing Sanchez remain at Arsenal after scoring 72 goals in 145 games in all competitions seems highly unlikely.