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)

UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden

Watch Live: England, Mexico, Spain, France in U-17 World Cup action

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It is a busy day at the U-17 World Cup in India as four Round of 16 games take place.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Red-hot England play Japan, while France and Spain collide and Mexico clash with a very impressive Iran side who won all of their group games. Mali and Iraq complete the Round of 16 games on Tuesday.

The winners of the England v. Japan game will face the U.S. on Saturday after they blew away Paraguay 5-0 on Monday.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s four games, while you can click on the link above to watch all four games live.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Iran vs. Mexico – 7:30 a.m. ET
France vs. Spain – 7:30 a.m. ET
England vs. Japan – 10:30 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Iraq – 10:30 a.m. ET

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.