Major League Soccer team previews: HOUSTON DYNAMO

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Significant additions and subtractions: Which Omar Cummings did the Dynamo get in that trade from Colorado, the deflated and measurably less effective version seen recently or the 2010 version who scares the bejeebers out of defenses with all that speed? (Cummings had 14 goals that year.)

Scottish left winger Andrew Driver has been signed on loan from Hearts. If it works out, look for Houston to attempt a longer-term signing. If Driver can make a dent around BBVA Compass Stadium, where the paint is barely dry, look for Brad Davis to operate in more inside spaces. He mostly drifts inside anyway, straying reliably from his old left-sided midfield home.

Eric Brunner arrives via trade with Portland to provide center back depth.

Colin Clark, who never quite gained full velocity in Houston, is now with Los Angeles. Je-Vaughn Watson, mostly a depth provider in midfield around BBVA Compass Stadium, went to Dallas in a late preseason trade.

Strengths: Look where this team is in offensive firepower compared to spring 2012 – and prepare to be impressed. Honduran flash Oscar Boniek Garcia proved his dynamic worth upon summer arrival last year. English league veteran Giles Barnes needed more time, but glowing reports are coming out of Houston’s preseason camp.

As mentioned, Driver’s arrival gives manager Dominic Kinnear different options for Davis and for the midfield in general.

Jermaine Taylor filled in so well last year once Geoff Cameron finally made his move to Stoke City, he now ranks as one of the league’s top 15 center backs. Alongside Bobby Boswell, flanked by Corey Ashe on the left and the improving Kofi Sarkodie on the right and backstopped by goalkeeper Tally Hall… that’s a darned solid back five.

Like Hall, forward Will Bruin will benefit from the confidence boost of a January spent with Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team.

The Dynamo move into 2013 having not yet lost at its home ground. It’s only one season’s worth of games (a 11-0-6 mark), but still…

Pressure points: Injuries took some preseason prep time away from central midfielder Ricardo Clark and left back Ashe. Cummings remains on the mend, as well.

There’s no easing into things; following Saturday’s MLS opener (a real goodie as D.C. United visits in a reprise of last week’s last fall’s Eastern Conference finals series) they motor directly into CONCACAF Champions League play. Houston faces Mexico’s Santos Laguna on March 5 and March 13 in quarterfinal action. Busy, busy, busy.

Past that, it’s really just about navigating a busy schedule and getting past the MLS Cup hump; Houston has lost  in the league final the last two seasons.

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Difference maker: Talk about Mr. Consistency: Davis (pictured right) has supplied at least 12 assists in each of the last four seasons. And while Davis gets so much credit for all that wonderful set-piece service, he probably doesn’t get as much credit as deserved for an overall game that has matured. He adds so much in midfield possession, and his defensive tracking remains reliable.

Potential breakout player: Six goals and four assists in 17 matches does not tell the whole story with Oscar Boniek Garcia. With half a season to adjust to MLS, he could be a blur along Houston’s right side. And with an improved midfield, paying extra attention to the Honduran international will be less of an option for opposing defenses.

Bottom line: The roster looks stronger, and that’s saying something considering this is the two-time MLS Cup runner-up. The defense is strong, the midfield is stacked and the forward line has the potential to be special depending on health/recoveries for Cumming and Calen Carr, and if Brian Ching, now 34, can continue being a force off the bench.

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

FIFA worried about government interference in Spain

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation, FIFA said Friday it will send a delegation to the country to investigate government meddling.

FIFA said in a statement written in Spanish that it had recently sent a letter to the federation “expressing our concern for the situation that the federation is going through and reminding (its officials) that, according to the Statutes of FIFA, all member federations must manage their affairs independently and assure that there is no interference by third parties.”

Spanish newspaper El Pais reported earlier Friday that the FIFA letter warned of a possible suspension because of the government’s push to hold elections following the arrest of federation president Angel Maria Villar in July on suspicion of corruption.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

According to El Pais, FIFA is concerned that the government’s interest in federation elections could be considered outside meddling and break its rules. If the national federation were to be suspended, Spain’s team would not be allowed to play at next year’s World Cup.

FIFA’s statement made no mention of a suspension or other punitive measures.

But the scare was big enough for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to say that Spain will not miss soccer’s biggest event.

“I am sure that Spain will go to the World Cup in Russia and that it will win it,” Rajoy said at a news conference in Brussels.

FIFA added in its statement that “in the coming days” it will send a delegation, which will include representatives from UEFA, to Madrid to “observe and analyze the situation” of the Spanish soccer federation.

The federation said in a separate statement that its interim president, Juan Luis Larrea, had spoken with FIFA and UEFA officials at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 and that he had passed on their “enormous concern” to Spain’s minister of education, culture and sport.

The Spanish federation said it was waiting for the ministry to set a date for a meeting.

Spanish police arrested Villar, his son, and two other soccer officials in July on suspicion of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar was replaced by Larrea, the body’s treasurer for three decades. Critics of Villar argue that elections are needed to make a clean start for the institution that has been tarnished by the scandal.

Newcastle linked with targets as Benitez begins transfer quest

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Newcastle United’s players have canceled their Christmas party, as manager Rafa Benitez admits he’s working on January gifts for the St. James’ Park set.

The Magpies have one point from their last eight matches, and face Arsenal, West Ham, and Manchester City in the run-up to the New Year, closing off a run of five matches in 16 days with Brighton and Stoke.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City vs. Spurs ]

Benitez says he’s begun talks with managing director Lee Charnley about the January window. The team is expected to make moves whether Mike Ashley completes a reported sale of the team or not. From Sky Sports:

“At this time it is just to talk about ideas,” he said. “You might say ‘I would like to sign this player’ and someone will say ‘£40m’ – maybe it is not realistic.

“The main thing, we had this conversation, then we have to move forward quickly. I don’t know the details but at least we were talking about that. We have to progress and it is so obvious that we have to improve things.”

Newcastle has been linked with a number of notable names a few weeks from the start of the January market, including Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, prolific Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun, as well as Liverpool’s Danny Ings and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw.

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Crystal Palace

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  • Leicester leads all-time 26W-18D-23L
  • Foxes 3W-1D vs. Eagles since Oct. 2015
  • Palace won at Leicester in Feb. 2015

The Claude Puel revolution at Leicester City has the Foxes surging up the Premier League table, and Saturday’s visitors from Crystal Palace are making moves of their own (Watch live Saturday at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Leicester has won four-straight matches, the latest a 4-1 beatdown of Southampton at St. Mary’s, and returns to King Power Stadium with a chance to make a dent on the five-point deficit between the Foxes and the Top Four.

 

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After beginning the season 0-7, Crystal Palace has claimed 14 of 30 points to move from 20th to 18th on the table. Roy Hodgson’s men have two wins and four draws in their last six matches.

What they’re saying

Leicester’s Harry Maguire on the task at hand:

Palace’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek on his high-flying loan spell from Chelsea: “It’s what you aspire to be when you’re younger. Right now it’s a case of trying to improve as much as I can and to keep the performances up. As long as I’m enjoying it I think I’ll do well, so I’m really happy. The experience of playing week in week out and the physical side of things, getting my body used to playing games – sometimes three in a week – has been a massive thing for me, especially when I haven’t played for two years regularly. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to get away from Chelsea, to play regular football, get my body used to it, get more robust and I think once you have that then it’s a platform to play better.”

Prediction

This could be a fun one, with names like Zaha, Townsend, Loftus-Cheek, Vardy, Mahrez, and Gray ready to bless the match with pace and creativity. Goals have come in bunches when Leicester’s on the pitch, and we’ll call it 2-1 to the Foxes.

RBNY’s Grella heads to Columbus (through Colorado)

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Mike Grella didn’t get to pick No. 20 of the MLS Re-Entry Draft, but that didn’t stop Columbus from getting their hands on the New York Red Bulls veteran.

Colorado selected Grella with the third overall pick, then sent him to Columbus for a second round pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft.

[ MLS: Ousted “blacklisted” by MLS? ]

The only other pick was made by Minnesota United, who took Tyrone Mears from Atlanta United.

Grella, 30, is a well-traveled Duke product who has played in England and Denmark. He scored 18 times with 13 assists in 89 matches for the Red Bulls, but missed most of the 2017 season with a pair of knee injuries.

It’s a good gamble for the Crew, and an extra draft pick for 2019. Second-round picks have become long odds to make MLS rosters, with Tommy McNamara and Aaron Long the last impact players to come out of the round. That was in 2014, and both needed changes of scenery before hitting their MLS strides.