Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Houston Dynamo

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

For a team that finished in the middle of their conference last season, the Houston Dynamo carry surprisingly few questions into their 2013 campaign.

That’s because they’re not a fifth-place caliber team. Two years in a row, Dominic Kinnear has guided his team to an MLS Cup final, and while Sporting has claimed two conference titles in that time, there’s little doubt which team are currently kings in the East.

Bringing back the same core that clicked during last year’s playoffs, Houston should be expected to better their 2012 regular season finish. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some doubt.

  • Is the defense for real?

Houston lost Geoff Cameron and didn’t miss a beat. They made a change at right back mid-stream and never lost their edge. As with most Kinnear teams, Houston’s defense served as the bedrock for the coach’s approach.

That’s no guarantee everything will unfold the same this spring. Bobby Boswell may have has his best MLS season in 2012. Will that continue into 2013? Will Jermaine Taylor resume the same high level he carried through his time in Cameron’s spot? And how will Kofie Sarkodie respond to his first March as Houston’s first choice right back?

Expect all those questions to come back positive. At not point during last year’s run did the you watch this back four and think “this has to be a fluke.” But sample sizes being what they are, it’s worth watching to make sure our initial perceptions coincide with the long-term reality. Preseason will give us our first hints.

  • Can Rico play a more attacking part?

Ricardo Clark’s return from Germany allowed Kinnear to switch from the 4-4-3 he used through summer to his preferred 4-4-2. With Clark and Adam Moffat in the middle, the Dynamo had a tandem that could both destroy play and clean up the second balls.

This year, however, Ricardo Clark may need to expand his game. Both he and Dominic Kinnear had hoped he’d play a more attacking role when he came into the starting XI, but his presence rarely translated into something going forward.

Conceivably, Houston could be fine if Clark plays the same way he did down the stretch in 2013, but the Dynamo would be much more balanced (and ultimately, dangerous) if they didn’t have to rely solely on Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia. Preseason’s the perfect time for Clark to start taking some chances.

  • How does Houston reach the next level?

Making finals is nice and losing to the Galaxy is understandable, but at some point it’s going to get old. And there’s always going to be a talented team at the end of any championship road.

If Houston’s going to reclaim an MLS crowd, they need something else. Perhaps that’s Clark finding some creativity. Maybe it’s Will Bruin becoming an All-Star. Boniek Garcia may become one of the league’s elite players. Perhaps Tally Hall becomes MLS’s Petr Cech. If so, we may start to see it in preseason.

Any of these things may prove enough to give Houston that one missing quality they need to win (instead of merely compete in) their last game.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: LA Galaxy

Conte: Costa “situation was very clear” in January

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At this point, there is no doubt Diego Costa‘s future lies away from London and Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte broke his silence on the Brazilian-born Spain international striker, saying he’s been ready to move on from Costa since January, when Costa and Conte had a disagreement following a big-money offer from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian during the winter transfer window.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

“I don’t like to talk about players who are not here but the only thing I can tell you [is that] in January, the Costa situation was very clear, for the club for him and his agent,” Conte told reporters Friday. “For me the situation is closed.”

It’s an amazing turn of events after Costa scored 20 Premier League goals in Chelsea’s title-winning 2016-2017 season, including 14 goals through the end of December. But after falling out with Jose Mourinho a year earlier, the same issue happened again under Conte, with Costa proving much less effective down the stretch.

But Conte and Costa were able to put their differences aside on the field, photographed multiple times hugging after wins, as well as after winning the title.

Costa is reportedly now agitating for a move back to his former club Atletico Madrid, but the Spanish club’s transfer ban until the next window complicates matters. In a World Cup year, would Costa be willing to sit out half a season just to leave Chelsea?

If Costa’s time in the Premier League is up, he’ll go down as one of the league’s best pound-for-pound goalscorers. He scored 52 goals in 89 Premier League appearances, with seven more cup goals in his three-year spell at Chelsea.

And if he is gone, defenders across the Premier League will sure be happy to wave goodbye.

Sparta Prague signs France midfielder Rio Mavuba

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PRAGUE (AP) Sparta Prague says it has signed France midfielder Rio Mavuba to a three-year contract.

The 33-year-old Mavuba comes from French club Lille, which he joined in 2008. Before that, he played for Bordeaux and Spanish club Villarreal.

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Mavuba was on the France team at the 2014 World Cup.

He is the 10th player signed by Sparta after Italian coach Andrea Stramaccioni took charge in May.

Mexico 1-0 Honduras: Pizarro strikes early to put El Tri in Gold Cup semifinals

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Mexico had little trouble dispatching Honduras as El Tri won 1-0 in Glendale, AZ and eased into the Gold Cup semifinals.

Just four minutes into the game, Mexico took the lead as they got Honduras on its heels, with Rodolfo Pizarro sticking the ball in at the far post at the end of a scramble. Jesus Duenas carved a ball through the defense, and while Elias Hernandez whiffed on the tap-in, Pizarro was right behind him to finish the chance.

Mexico settled in after scoring, while Honduras tried to out-muscle El Tri, with the latter receiving a pair of yellow cards in the first 45 minutes. There were precious few other chances throughout the first half, with Honduras completely incapable of creating anything in the attacking half.

Mexico continued to dominate out of the halftime break, but they lost Monterrey midfielder Jesus Molina in the 65th minute with discomfort, replaced by Chaka Rodriguez. The best moment for Honduras as they chased the game late came in the 78th minute as Jose Corona made a spectacular save when substitute Alexander Lopez nearly scored directly from a corner. They came close again in stoppage time after a set-piece as Alfredo Mejia scuffed a shot agonizingly wide.

Honduras ended their Gold Cup without a single goal scored. They technically defeated French Guyana 3-0 in the group stage, but that came on the typical forfeit scoreline, whereas the actual game played ended in a 0-0 draw.

Meanwhile, Mexico will take on Jamaica in the semifinal in a rematch of last tournament’s final.

Manchester United beats City 2-0 in preseason Derby

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Manchester is Red, at least for the preseason.

Manchester United used quickfire first-half goals from Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford to topple Manchester City 2-0 in Houston as part of the International Champions Cup.

The first half-hour saw plenty of action, but nothing in terms of goals. New Manchester City full-back Kyle Walker made a great run to cut down Rashford before he could shoot, while goalkeeper Ederson was required to keep out Paul Pogba.

On the other end, Chris Smalling was active often, nearly conceding a penalty with a pull on the shirt of Patrick Roberts, while also cleaning up after a high City press caught United in their own defensive third.

[ MORE: West Ham signs Chicharito ]

Just before halftime, United went in front thanks to their prized new striker. Pogba launched an absolutely brilliant long-ball, and Lukaku streaked to meet it, heading past a charging Ederson before cutting from a tight angle into the empty net before defenders could recover.

Immediately after, Rashford put United 2-0 up on a cool finish from the right with space after a ball from Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The score is Rashford’s third goal of the United States tour.

After a host of changes at halftime that saw City keep just four players on the field, it didn’t help as United kept on the pressure. Rashford almost scored an accidental long-range chip as his long-ball to the far post nearly went in, but Ederson tipped it over. Moments later, Lukaku thundered a howitzer into the crossbar.

United made a host of changes past the hour mark, and they nearly had another if not for the offside flag raising on Phil Jones after a double-save by Ederson. City had a big chance in the final 10 minutes, as a great ball from Samir Nasri found Gabriel Jesus, but the Brazilian put it well over.

Ederson had a solid game in net for Manchester City despite the loss, while Kyle Walker and 17-year-old City youth product Brahim Diaz also stood out. For United, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was bright as were Paul Pogba and goalscorer Marcus Rashford.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea (Romero 45′); Valencia (Fosu-Mensah 77′), Lindelöf (Bailly 45′), Smalling (Jones 45′), Blind (Darmian 45′); Herrera (Fellaini 62′), Pogba; Rashford (Martial 62′), Mkhitaryan (Carrick 62′), Lingard (Pereira 78′); Lukaku.

Manchester City: Ederson; Adarabioyo (Otamendi 45′), Kompany (Mangala 45′), Fernandinho, Yaya Toure (Sane 45′), Walker, Foden (Zinchenko 74′), De Bruyne (Diaz 45′), Sterling (Jesus 45′), Aguero (Stones 45′), Roberts (Nasri 45′).