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.

Toronto FC beats Crew 5-0 to extend unbeaten streak to 8

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TORONTO (AP) Victor Vazquez scored twice and Toronto FC routed the Columbus Crew 5-0 on Friday night to extend its unbeaten streak to a franchise record-matching eight games.

[ MORE: Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape ]

Toronto (8-1-5) is 7-0-1 since its lone league loss of the season, a 2-1 decision in Columbus on April 15. Columbus (6-7-1) has lost five of seven since topping Toronto.

Justin Morrow and substitutes Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton also scored for MLS-leading Toronto. The Canadian team also was unbeaten in eight games (4-0-4) from May 8 to July 10, 2010.

Toronto was reduced to 10 men in the 81st minute when midfielder Marky Delgado was red-carded for a studs-up tackle on Columbus captain Wil Trapp. Osorio and Hamilton then scored to pad the lead for Toronto in its sixth shutout of the season.

Toronto played without the starting forward tandem of Sebastian Giovinco (injured) and Jozy Altidore (suspended for yellow card accumulation). Defender Nick Hagglund also is injured.

Agent: Barcelona offered more than Real for Vinicius Junior

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If Vinicius Junior can become half the player at Real Madrid that Neymar has lived up to be at Barcelona, Los Blancos will be pretty pleased.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Real closed the deal for the 16-year-old Brazilian this week, but there were several other lucrative offers on the table, according to the player’s agent, Frederico Pena.

[ MORE: Totti leaves future uncertain heading into final Roma match ]

That includes bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona.

The agent stated that the Blaugrana did in fact offer a higher deal to acquire the Brazilian, however, he felt it would have complicated matters further to seek a greater offer from Real.

“There is practically unanimous view of the deal as a success,” Pena said. “If anybody gets criticised it is Real Madrid, for the risk they have taken, but they are sure that it will work. There were other clubs interested, and one offered to pay more money … Barca’s remuneration package offer for the player was higher than Real Madrid.

“But as we had reached an agreement with Real, we did not want to make this last push for them to match it. That could have embittered the relationship. Many people think it is crazy what Madrid are doing, but they were not alone in this craziness. They were not the only ones willing to pay this much for Vinicius.”

Pena also clarified as to why Vinicius chose Real over Barcelona, citing the player’s excitement about the development of Los Blancos during recent seasons under manager Zinedine Zidane and prior.

“Because Vinicius liked Madrid’s project better. There is always the feeling that players choose based on financial reasons, but that is not true. I assure you of that. Real Madrid’s negotiating posture was better.”

Real is on the verge of winning its third UEFA Champions League trophy in the last four seasons as the club prepares to face Juventus in the upcoming final.

Zidane’s men also won La Liga during the 2016/17 campaign.

Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape

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U.S. Soccer has come a long way over the years, and one of the nation’s most promising young players recognizes the progress the United States has made.

[ MORE: Man City acquire Monaco’s Silva after passing medical ]

Christian Pulisic, who plays for Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, is one of several young talents that U.S. hopes to finally bring the American men a moment of glory on the biggest of stages — the World Cup.

The 18-year-old has done just about everything a player of his age could do. He’s played in one of the top leagues in the world, appeared in various UEFA Champions League matches and now he’s likely on pace to appear in the 2018 World Cup, assuming the USMNT advances out of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The U.S., who have reached the World Cup during seven straight cycles, have come a long way in a short period of time, and Pulisic is happy with the improving U.S. Soccer landscape.

“It’s been big flaw of ours in the soccer department that a lot of our best athletes go and play other sports,” Pulisic told The Guardian. “But I think young players have seen me, and others, go over to Europe and play in some of the best leagues — and MLS is improving so much too.

“There’s so much potential and I think it’s changing: we’ve had some bigger athletes in the past but I don’t think that defines us anymore.

“We’re going to keep moving forward, developing young players and we’re going to have a really good shot in the next few years.”

During this past Bundesliga season, Pulisic recorded three goals and added six assists for a club that has become well known for its high-powered offensive attack.

Report: Kyle Walker a top target for Manchester City

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Manchester City could be looking to bolster its backline further this summer, and the Citizens could turn to Tottenham for help.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

According to ESPN FC, Pep Guardiola‘s side is growing more and more enamored with Spurs defender Kyle Walker and believes City can acquire the experienced outside back prior to the 2017/18 Premier League season.

With City already losing Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna since the end of the PL season, Guardiola will have to address the club’s lack of depth at outside back.

Several other big clubs have been considered in the running for Walker’s services, including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

The 26-year-old has been at White Hart Lane since joining Spurs in 2009 from Sheffield United and has made 222 appearances for the club in that span.