MLS Preview: Houston Dynamo at D.C. United

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If D.C. United were playing better, this would be billed as a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals. And technically, Wednesday’s visit from Houston still is, though if you’re picking from storylines to promote tonight’s game at RFK, 2012 nostalgia would be pretty far down the list. Coming off a huge win in Los Angeles, the Dynamo are justifying preseason hype that slotted them at the top of the Eastern Conference. Ben Olsen’s team, however, is in free fall.

[MORE: PST’s Power Rankings capture D.C.’s slide]

The explanation for D.C.’s slide: Nothing’s working. Along with New England, they’ve got the league’s worst attack (four goals in eight games), but unlike the Revolution, they’re having trouble preventing goals. Only three teams have allowed more than United’s 13. With that combination of inept offense and poor defense, it’s no surprise United have the league’s worst record.

Two months ago, though, that would have been a hard one to call. D.C. was coming off a second place finish in the East and looked set to push on. With young players like Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Chris Korb and Bill Hamid, there was reason to believe they would improve, especially with another year under Olsen’s belt. Instead, D.C. United’s experiencing a power outage. Partly due to health reasons, Olsen’s yet to get a goal from DeLeon, Dwayne De Rosario, or Chris Pontius, while imported strikers Rafael, Carlos Ruiz, and Lionard Pajoy (acquired late last year) have only three. Right now, there’s just nothing there, which only magnifies the problems of a defense threatening to revert to 2011 form.

The Houston Dynamo are near the other end of the spectrum, their points-per-game rate ranking second in the Eastern Conference. And coming off a road win over the Galaxy, there’s reason to think Dom Kinnear’s team is transcending their current standing. Where road performance has been a problem with Houston in recent years, the Dynamo got a convincing victory at a venue where they’re lost the last two MLS Cup finals. That their captain and best player, Brad Davis, was suspended for the game made the victory all the more impressive.

This is exactly what we expected from Houston: a team which, bringing back almost its entire squad, would be able to get even better with a little more time and talent. On the talent end, that means the additions of Andrew Driver, Eric Brunner, and (the seldom used) Omar Cummings providing the depth Kinnear needs to improve on last year’s fifth place finish. And with time, Ricardo Clark’s a bigger part of the team, Corey Ashe and Kofie Sarkodie have continued to improve, while Gilles Barnes has asserted himself playing behind Will Bruin.

Tonight’s matchup at RFK pits a complete team against one without answers, and unfortunately for United, they need the result more. But with Houston coming off a big road win, D.C. can’t count on the Dynamo’s old road woes tilting this one in their favor.

Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

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MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.

Europa League: Arsenal, Marseille host semifinal 1st legs

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Arsenal’s Champions League dreams could be in for a rude awakening against tournament-tested Atletico Madrid.

The Premier League vs. La Liga match-up is one of two Europa League semifinal first legs set to be served up Sunday, with Marseille and Red Bull Salzburg meeting in the other.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

There’s something romantic about Arsene Wenger closing out his time at Arsenal against French opposition in Lyon, but Atleti and Salzburg won’t step aside for poetics.

Both matches kickoff ay 3:05 p.m. ET

Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid

It’s a bit stunning that this tie has no history considering both club’s statures in their leagues and Europe, but that’s what we’ll se when Arsenal welcomes Atleti for the first leg.

Arsenal boasts two of the top 10 performers in the UEL this season — it would be three had the Gunners not sold Theo Walcott — and are paced by Aaron Ramsey, who has four goals and an assist. Mesut Ozil, who’s ready to return to the pitch, has the reverse with a goal and four helpers.

The Gunners have outscored UEL opposition 29-10 this season.

It’s no surprise that Antoine Griezmann has been Atleti’s best attacker since the Madrid side dropped out of the UCL to run rampant through the UEL knockout rounds. Atleti beat Copenhagen 5-1, Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1, and Sporting Lisbon 2-1 for an aggregate score line of 15-3.

Marseille vs. Red Bull Salzburg

Don’t expect this to be a simple case of Ligue 1 bossing inferior opposition: This pair met in the group stage, with the Austrian side winning at home and drawing 0-0 in France.

Salzburg has shown its mettle in various ways during the UEL. After allowing just one goal in an unbeaten group stage, they’ve won 4-3 over Real Sociedad, 2-1 against Borussia Dortmund, and 6-5 versus Lazio. That’s no easy road, and Marseille represents another big challenge.

Marseille is bidding to make its first European final since 2004, and has been led by Dimitri Payet‘s three goals and four assists, and Lucas Ocampos’ four goals and one assist. Marseille has knocked off RB Leipzig, Athletic Bilbao, and Braga after the group stage.

Names you’ll need to know from Salzburg: defenders Stefan Lainer and Paulo Miranda have been spectacular, and Munas Dabbur and Valon Berisha have each scored five times in the tournament.

Mourinho on longtime nemesis Wenger: ‘We can be friends in future’

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Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have had a poor relationship, but the former thinks he’s soon to get along with the latter.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Manchester United boss Mourinho, 55, heaped praise on the departing Arsenal manager ahead of the two sides’ Sunday meeting at Old Trafford (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), saying the Frenchman has earned much respect.

Branding Wenger “iconic,” Mourinho says his fiery rivalry with Wenger stemmed from Arsenal’s stature in the Premier League when the Portuguese took over Chelsea.

“If he respects me even 50 percent of what I respect him we can even be friends in the future,” Mourinho told Sky Sports News. “I have lots of respect for him. But the reality is that he was at Arsenal, he was the champion and I came to the country in 2004 and wanted to steal his title. That’s football.”

Mourinho said he’s tried to show his respect for Wenger, 68, over the past few seasons. It may become a passable relationship, but we find it hard to believe the pair will be dining together on a regular basis as the sun sets on their managerial careers (Mou has a while to go, we think).

Real’s Modric on Bayern feeling unlucky: “That’s their problem”

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Bayern Munich produced far more chances than visiting Real Madrid in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg in Germany, but lost 2-1 at the Allianz Arena.

Franck Ribery butchered an open shot at goal, Robert Lewandowski beat Keylor Navas but didn’t score late, and Thomas Mueller missed getting contact on a shot inside the six.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

It was that kind of day, and Mueller is baffled that his team did not finish more than Joshua Kimmich’s opener.

“Everybody is wondering why this game is 1-2 for Madrid,” Mueller reportedly said. “We still cannot believe it.”

The quote comes from BeIN Sport’s Tancredi Palmeri, who has a stinging rebuke from Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric.

Real wasn’t great on Wednesday, but also limited their big mistakes to one: Marcelo’s lapse of judgment which helped Kimmich to open the scoring for Bayern Munich.

The hosts had a huge giveaway from Rafinha on the match-winner, and backup backstop Sven Ulreich didn’t have a phenomenal day on either goal. Throw in Arjen Robben’s injury requiring an 8th minute substitution, and Bayern did not have much good fortune on the day.

This one, though, doesn’t seem over, even with the tie moving to the Bernabeu.