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)

Photo: Flamengo supporter tattoos club jersey on body

MAURÍCIO DOS ANJOS VIA VICE
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A supporter in Brazil has taken fandom to a whole new level with a piece of body art that shows his devotion to the club.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

Maurício dos Anjos, a passionate Flamengo fan, has been a life-long supporter of the Rio de Janeiro-based club, and has the tattoo to prove it.

While it may look like body paint, Dos Anjos has a tattoo on the upper-half of his body depicting the Flamengo jersey, and it’s pretty awesome.

“People ask me if I don’t find it strange that I’m always wearing a Flamengo shirt. And I just don’t,” dos Anjos told VICE. “To me, it’s normal. But it doesn’t seem like anyone I talk to about it actually dislikes my tattoo.”

In total, Dos Anjos says the body work took over 90 hours and 30 sessions to complete the tattoo.

Has the perception of MLS really changed?

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When David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles back in 2007 his presence changed the complexion of Major League Soccer for all the right reasons, and the perception of the growing league changed.

[ MORE: Go behind the scenes at NYCFC’s new training facility ]

Over the years, MLS has strived to move into the upper-echelon of the global game, in an attempt to compete with the likes of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, but naysayers still indicate to this day that the United States’ top flight lacks the quality of the aforementioned.

Phrases like “retirement league” and “uninspired” have been used to describe MLS in the past, particularly when it comes to the league’s willingness to spend boatloads of cash on notable players well past their prime.

Examples such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Rafael Marquez have at times dampened the perception of MLS due to the lack of quality on the pitch from those players, along with several others that had previously boasted extensive resumes.

Now, we’re at a time where MLS has picked up its scouting, with clubs focused more on younger, more skilled talents from South America and Europe.

That has led to major signings over the past several years, such as Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, Diego Rossi and Jesus Medina, to name a few.

Has that changed the overall complexion of MLS though?

On Thursday, Kevin De Bruyne‘s agent, Patrick de Koster, suggested in an interview that the Belgium international would likely “finish” his career in MLS.

“For now, he’s very happy at this club,” De Koster said. “We always look what the best solution for the player, both financially and football wise. Kevin’s future? I can see him finish at Los Angeles.”

This comes on the heels of a 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining the LA Galaxy in a move that has sent shockwaves across the league and the world because of the Swede’s great presence on a global scale.

It’s not to say that players like Ibrahimovic, or previous signings like David Villa and Didier Drogba cannot help the overall growth of MLS, because they certainly bring an awareness to the matches and draw attention to their respective clubs.

However, the long-term viability of MLS has been and will continue to be sustained on youth players succeeding in the league, as well as being able to draw promising young talents into the top flight of the U.S.

Report: USMNT likely to face Brazil, Mexico in September friendlies

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The U.S. Men’s National Team won’t have a busy schedule throughout the summer, but Dave Sarachan and his side will get a tiny taste of the World Cup in September.

[ MORE: Chivas’ Almeyda exhales after CCL title win ]

ESPN FC is reporting that the USMNT will likely face Brazil and Mexico — both of whom will travel to Russia in June — later this year, as the U.S. Soccer Federation is in the process of finalizing both friendlies.

The matches are set to be played during the September international window, which runs from Sept. 3 through Sept. 11.

Both fixtures will reportedly be played in the United States, although venues haven’t been determined yet.

The U.S. has already begun booking a slate of difficult matches to round out 2018, with England and Italy already confirmed opponents for the Yanks in November.

The Yanks are 1-17-0 all-time against Brazil in all competitions, while the U.S. hasn’t faced Mexico since its 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azteca in June 2017 during CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

Men in Blazers: Jurgen Klopp talks loss of Coutinho and more

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Roger Bennett talks with manager Jurgen Klopp about revolutionizing Liverpool, his Greatest Show on Turf-esque offense, the loss of Philippe Coutinho and how he keeps football in perspective.

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