MLS Preview: Houston Dynamo at Sporting Kansas City

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The Major League Soccer season is long and the barren spots are inevitably out there.

But that doesn’t make a dip in the road easy to swallow, not for a proud club like the Houston Dynamo, an organization that has appeared in four of the last seven MLS Cup finals.

Dominic Kinnear’s club has lost two in a row – both at home, no less, a rather shocking development considering that 36-game unbeaten streak at home across all competitions that just went kaput.

So maybe Kinnear’s men don’t mind being on the road, especially not at a place where they’ve had some high-profile success. Houston has eliminated Kansas City at Sporting Park for the last two MLS playoffs.

Kickoff this afternoon on NBC Sports Network is 3:30 p.m. ET.

On the other hand, Peter Vermes’ club is playing wonderfully at the moment, turning up with the consistency that was missing during a surprisingly wobbly launch into 2013, even while dealing with some back line instability.

Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Jimmy Nielsen and the rest of SKC’s stars were responsible for dumping Houston’s showy unbeaten run at home into the nearby Gulf of Mexico two weeks back. In fact, Sporting went from there to D.C. United and were quite unfortunate not to find six points from the back-to-back set of road matches.

Ike Opara scored a perfectly legitimate goal in the 30th minute at RFK Stadium – but one that match officials completely blew. The game officials and the Professional Referees Organization have all copped to the big error. (Seriously, it wasn’t even close). But that doesn’t really help SKC, which finished level in a 1-1 result at RFK.

“Whether [the assistant referee] lost concentration, whether he just doesn’t know the rules, there were just a lot of different things where the guy made a big mistake,” Vermes said. “It’s unfortunate, because it’s two points over the course of the season.”

Opara may be back in the lineup, although Vermes has his full choice of center backs again. Besler, the U.S. international who missed three matches with a knee sprain, was back last week for the draw United. And Aurelien Collin is back off a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation.

Injured right back Chance Myers may also be healthy enough for a start after missing three of the last four.

While SKC’s back line gets healthier, the Dynamo will begin dealing with a short stretch of life minus veteran center back Bobby Boswell. He’ll miss two matches for a naughty head butt last week against New England. The timing is particularly poor because central partner Jermaine Taylor could also be slowed (or out) due to a shoulder injury.

The Dynamo do have that deep midfield, with the top league assist man over the last few years, Brad Davis, plus Oscar Boniek Garcia and new Scottish man Andrew Driver all presented as options for Kinnear along the outside. Davis can also play inside if Kinnear chooses to rest Ricardo Clark or Adam Moffat.

Don’t forget, Clark has played as a center back before – so perhaps Kinnear uses that depth creatively and gets all his best men on the field?

Whomever gets the assignment, SKC’s Claudio Bieler awaits. The team’s first-year Argentine DP striker has six goals, tied for second-best this year in MLS. And they’ll be watchful for Zusi, whose four assists shares the league lead.

Liga MX wrap: Pachuca earns first win, Leon stays unbeaten

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All of Saturday’s action from around Mexico’s top flight…

Pachuca 3-1 Lobos BUAP

A strong first-half push from the hosts was all Pachuca needed on Saturday night to earn their first victory of the 2018 Clausura season. Angel Sagal brought the home side in front after just 10 minutes off of a near-post header, before Pachuca’s lead soon doubled 14 minutes later from the penalty spot when strike Franco Jara converted on the dead-ball attempt.

Just prior to halftime, Pachuca was out to a 3-0 advantage when 20-year-old outside back Erick Aguirre tallied his first goal for the club.

Last-place side Lobos got on the board three minutes into the second stanza via a finish from Heriberto Olvera, however, it wasn’t enough to provide anything more than a consolation for the visiting side.

Necaxa 1-3 Chivas Guadalajara

Mexican international Alan Pulido made it a dream start for the visitors from Guadalajara at the Estadio Victoria, however, that lead was cancelled out in first-half stoppage time after Carlos Gonzalez leveled the match up at 1-1.

The difference proved to be with 25 minutes left to play, when a goalkeeping error by Marcelo Barovero allowed Chivas to regain possession inside the Necaxa penalty area, before Ronaldo Cisneros tapped home the winner.

Then, a third goal came just prior to the end of regulation when Edwin Hernandez killed the game off for Matias Almeyda’s men, who also earned their first victory of the Clausura season.

Rest of Saturday’s Liga MX action

Cruz Azul 0-0 Club Leon
Queretaro 0-0 Tigres UANL
Monterrey 0-0 Club Tijuana

Sunday’s matches

UNAM vs. Club America — 1 p.m. ET
Santos Laguna vs. Morelia — 7 p.m. ET

The 2 Robbies: Alexis/Mkhitaryan transfer saga and more

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle recap all the key stories from the latest Premier League Saturday fixtures including Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Newcastle (0:20), Chelsea’s 4-0 victory at Brighton (10:15) and the latest on the Alexis Sanchez/Henrikh Mkhitaryan saga after wins for Arsenal and Manchester United (19:00). Plus, a closer look at the bottom of the table and thoughts go out to James McCarthy after his serious injury against West Brom (29:00).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Video: Stoke’s Imbula scores stunner on loan at Toulouse

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Stoke City supporters know the name Giannelli Imbula, and perhaps they’ll be clamoring for the Frenchman to return to the bet365 Stadium if he can score more goals like this.

[ MORE: PL Roundup — Top three all victorious; Gunners thrash Palace ]

The holding midfielder is currently on loan with Ligue 1 outfit Toulouse, and for the first time this season, Imbula opened his goalscoring account in some fashion.

Right on half-hour mark, Imbula unleashed a left-footed strike from nearly 40 yards out to give Toulouse the lead over Montpellier (below).

Imbula joined Stoke during the 2015/16 PL season, and has made 26 appearances for the Potters in his time with the club, prior to his loan to France.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.