Andres Romero, Patrice Bernier, Marco Di Vaio,

MLS Preview: Houston Dynamo at Montréal Impact

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  • Houston winless since May 8
  • Dynamo without Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia
  • Montréal claiming league best points, goals per match

On May 8, Houston went to RFK Stadium and blitzed D.C. United, a result that not only reaffirmed our doubts about Ben Olsen’s squad but helped confirm preseason suspicions about the Dynamo. Having solidified in the offseason, Houston convinced most pundits that they’d avoid the fifth place finish that complicated last year’s route to a second-straight MLS Cup final. Since, however, Dominic Kinnear’s team is winless in a four-match span that’s seen the team handed their first losses at BBVA Compass Stadium. They’ve also managed only one of a possible six points from New England and Columbus.

Houston also played Sporting Kansas City twice in that span, so it’s not like the Dynamo had the easiest of months, but the struggles still bring preseason expectations into perspective. At MLS Cup last year, when I asked Kinnear about his team’s fifth place finish, he expressed some mild disappointment with his team’s placing. “We certainly didn’t try to finish fifth,” he said, a response which, months later, provided a hint as to how a bulked up Dynamo team would tackle the 2013 season.

With the second-highest point rate in the East, Houston appear to have improved on last year’s mid-table performance, yet given their last months’ slide, it’s worth considering where things may be going wrong. With only two goals in their last four games, the answer seems clear, but with Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia just returning from national team duty, things may not get better tonight in Montréal (8:00 p.m. EDT kickoff at Stade Saputo). Will Bruin, Andrew Driver – somebody needs to find a way to create chances in the absence of the team’s two best players.

The Impact are coming off their own disappointment, having lost this weekend in Columbus. Though Montréal remain the only MLS team claiming at least two points per game, the Crew provided a reminder of the Impact’s unique quality.  Given their talents and how Marco Schällibaum’s setting his team up, Montréal is the team you’d least want to grant the opening goal. Not coincidentally, despite the league’s best goal rate, they’re also a team disproportionately hurt by giving up the first goal.  Even a team like Columbus, a decent but far from elite side, can take down the Impact if they score early and force them to play so different from their base approach.

But when we’re talking about a team that’s sitting atop the Eastern Conference, these are trifling concerns. All successful teams have styles they prefer. Montréal’s is a patient, conservative approach that becomes opportunistic, aggressive when Patrice Bernier finds Marco Di Vaio in transition. Of course, they’re not unbeatable, but a short-handed Houston making the long, mid-week trip to Quebec, we’re likely to see why Montréal, in only their second season, are a viable Supporters’ Shield contender.

If they win, Montréal will open up a four-point lead on second place New York, a huge gap considering the Impacts’ two matches in hand. If Houston wins, they’ll leap into a tie with Red Bull for second place, one point behind the conference leaders.

Other notes: Aside from Davis and Garcia’s absences, both teams will be at full strength … Referee Chris Penso has issued eight red cards and given 13 penalties in his 38 MLS games … Teams are 1-1-1 all-time against each other … Montréal has recently flirted with a 4-4-2 formation, trying to get Andrew Wenger more time. For former No. 1 overall pick was ineffective in Columbus, subbed off early in the second half … With captain Davy Arnaud available, Montréal could return to the 4-5-1 … Houston get Bobby Boswell (suspension) and Jermaine Taylor (international duty) back in central defense, allowing Ricardo Clark to return to midfield … When that defense lost Eric Brunner early in Columbus, Anthony Arena made his full debut; Rookie Jason Johnson got his first start of the season in Columbus.

MLS Cup Playoffs: Seattle Sounders 1-0 Sporting KC (video)

Seattle Sounders defender Brad Evans celebrates after Sounders' Nelson Haedo Valdez scored a goal against Sporting Kansas City in the second half of an MLS soccer playoff match, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Seattle. The Sounders beat Sporting Kansas City 1-0. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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The game in 100 words (or less): There’s a ton to unpack here, so we’ll dive right in. The Seattle Sounders topped Sporting Kansas City in the final knockout-round game of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. Nelson Valdez scored the game’s only goal, an 88th-minute header, but not without supreme controversy. For starters, Valdez was offside as Joevin Jones played the ball into the box, just as Matt Besler was on a free kick for Sporting earlier in the second half. Besler’s goal was ruled out for offside, Valdez’s was allowed to stand. Benny Feilhaber, perhaps in his final game for Sporting, played like a man possessed and so nearly singlehandedly won the game for Sporting at multiple points on the night. Stefan Frei stood on his head and refused to allow such an occurrence. Osvaldo Alonso could have been sent off twice on the night — once on a straight red; once on a second yellow — but finished the game with just a single caution. Up next, the Sounders will take on Supporters’ Shield-winning FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

10′ — Zusi hits the post with a strike through traffic — Benny Feilhaber’s through ball to set up this double-chance for Sporting in sumptuous, and fully deserving of a proper finish.

53′ — Besler heads home, but he’s offside — This is about as close an onside/offside decisions get.

79′ — Frei denies Feilhaber after a spectacular run — Feilhaber’s run was mesmerizing, but Stefan Frei’s save was the tiniest bit better.

88′ — Valdez heads home the late winner — If Besler was offside, Valdez was offside. An unfitting end to a thrilling game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Benny Feilhaber

Goalscorers: Valdez (88′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: D.C. United 2-4 Montreal Impact (video)

CORRECTS DATE - Montreal Impact forward Matteo Mancosu, back, celebrates his goal with Ignacio Piatti (10) during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match against D.C. United, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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The game in 100 words (or less): There are epic playoff collapses, and there is the MLS Cup Playoffs abomination put forth by D.C. United on Thursday. Playing host to a Montreal Impact side that won just two of its last eight regular-season games and crawled over the finish line, United — winners of four of their last five and one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch — no-showed Thursday’s knockout-round tie, and their season is deservingly finished. Laurent Ciman put the Impact ahead inside the first five minutes, and United never recovered or seemed the least bit urgent with their season on the line. Matteo Mancosu bagged a brace either side of halftime to make it 3-0, and Ignacio Piatti, who was his usual brilliant self — so good, in fact, he made you forget Didier Drogba was unavailable due to injury/dispute over his role as a substitute — added a fourth not long before full-time. Lamar Neagle grabbed a late consolation goal for United, bringing them back to 4-1 before Taylor Kemp fired a laser past Evan Bush for 4-2 late in stoppage time, but that’s as close as they’d get. Up next for the Impact, it’s the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three moments that mattered

4′ — Ciman slots home from a corner for 1-0 — An absolute dream start for Montreal, as Ciman gets front side of his marker and benefits from a fortunate bounce after he scuffs the shot.

43′ — Mancosu slams home Piatti’s cross for 2-0 — Someone tell DCU that the knockout round is most definitely win-or-go-home. Horrific defending. Ball-watching all over the place. This is not the same team that won four of their last five in order to host this game.

58′ — Mancosu heads home at the near post for 3-0 — Steve Birnbaum has not had the greatest end to the 2016 season. Stay healthy, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Matteo Mancosu

Goalscorers: Ciman (4′), Mancosu (43′, 58′), Piatti (83′), Neagle (90′), Kemp (90+4′)

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.