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MLS Preview: Union look to put late collapses behind against struggling Houston

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The Philadelphia Union have let four points slip away in the dying embers of their previous two matches, causing coach John Hackworth to tell the media how much hair it’s causing him to lose.

Hint: it’s a lot. With those four points, they’d be top of the Eastern Conference.

Instead, they sit in third and remain embroiled in the smorgasbord that is the East.  Saturday they have an opportunity to distance themselves further from the Houston Dynamo, who remain just four points back despite having just picked up two points in their last seven fixtures.

The fact Houston remain in a playoff spot despite that awful record is a testament to the parity in the East.  Houston are winless since May 8 and goalless in their last 329 league minutes – 419 overall including their tumble out of the U.S. Open Cup.  You have to travel all the way back to April 28 to find their last home goal.

(MORE: Houston Dynamo – brace for impact)

And yet, they’ve created chances. Somehow, they just can’t finish.  Against New York on Sunday, the Dynamo produced 11 shots with 25 crosses.  Unfortunately, the quality was missing.  Just three of those 11 shots were on target.  That’s not exactly much of a test for the opposing goalkeeper.

That could possibly change Saturday.  Honduran playmaker Oscar Boniek Garcia is questionable, missing since the last round of World Cup qualifiers with a hamstring injury.  If able to play, the midfielder would add a fair bit of quality back to the squad. His arrivial last season turned things around in time to win an MLS Cup; could his addition do it again?

Even if the Honduran does return to the Houston lineup, don’t expect goals to fly out of this match.  With each team missing their young frontmen to Gold Cup duty, replacements will be needed.  Jack McInerney and Will Bruin are hoping to get their first shot at real international action, leaving their clubs that much thinner.

Also on duty with the USMNT are Houston’s Corey Ashe and Philadelphia’s Keon Daniel.  Although playing different positions, the two are cornerstones of their respective clubs, with their absences requiring a temporary fix.

For Houston, absences are becoming a normality.  Missing for the Dynamo in addition to Bruin, Hall, and Ashe will be right-back Kofie Sarkodie, leaving yet another hole in the back line.  Finally, Brad Davis is a “long shot” according to head coach Dominic Kinnear.  Look for defenders Warren Creavalle and Eric Brunner to continue their fill-in duties, with Mike Chabala possibly getting a shot as well.

With Philadelphia sitting much lower than they should after last-minute points let free, and Houston tabled higher than expected with a seven-match winless streak in play, it’s a match with much intrigue, and about as much table ramifications as you can get this early in the season.

Barcelona, Neymar make it formal: Signed into 2021

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 19: Neymar of Barcelona holds off pressure from Raheem Sterling of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League group C match between FC Barcelona and Manchester City FC at Camp Nou on October 19, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
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T’s are crossed and i’s dotted on Neymar’s new contract, keeping him at the club through the 2020-21 season.

Neymar, 24, will make his 100th La Liga appearance with his next step onto the pitch.

Lionel Messi’s deal runs through 2017-18, and Luis Suarez’s goes through 2018-19.

[ MORE: Guardiola on Aguero omission ]

He’s scored 59 goals in league play, and has 91 total when you include all 150 of his matches in a Barca kit.

Neymar is on a similar scoring rate to last season, when he netted 31 times. The Brazilian also has 49 international goals in 73 caps.

Guardiola seethes at reports Aguero unwanted at Man City

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City is congratulated by Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League match between Manchester City FC and VfL Borussia Moenchengladbach at Etihad Stadium on September 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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Pep Guardiola is seething with reports that claim star striker Sergio Aguero is not in his plans for Manchester City’s future.

Aguero started on the bench for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League loss at Barcelona, inspiring talk that the Argentine star wasn’t long for the Emirates Stadium.

[ MORE: Conte on Mourinho, Pogba ]

Guardiola says that’s garbage, and that he simply needed more midfielders for his attack. Next time, just ask.

From the BBC:

“It was a tactical decision. I wanted one more midfielder, I tried to keep the ball in the Camp Nou and when you have the ball, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez don’t.

“I spoke with Sergio and he was understanding, I thought in the last 30 minutes, with the Barcelona centre-halves tiring, he could help a lot from the bench. When Sergio decides to leave it will be his decision. Next time before you (the media) decide he is not in my plans you can call me.”

Still, not using Aguero is risky business.

The striker believes, rightly, that he’s among the most dangerous players in the world. Guardiola has said as much, too.

While few would put him in the class of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s difficult to imagine either being sat for tactical reasons against one of the best teams in the world.

Chelsea: Conte expects warm reception for Mourinho; Terry is fit

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  A fan wears a Chelsea scarf with the image of the club's former manager, Jose Mourinho before the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Watford at Stamford Bridge on December 26, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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The managers are meeting the media ahead of this week’s Premier League matches, and many eyes are trained on one specific match-up.

Chelsea and Manchester United meet on Sunday, the first time Jose Mourinho will manage against his old side since his unceremonious exit last winger.

[ USWNT: Holiday has tumor removed ]

Mourinho, of course, led Chelsea to the 2014-15 title only to see a miserable start to the following campaign. He was hired at Manchester United this summer, but Conte thinks Mourinho’s Chelsea laurels have earned him some love from Stamford Bridge.

“I have great respect for Mourinho. He deserves a good reception. He was an important man for Chelsea and wrote part of the club’s story.”

Conte also touched on Paul Pogba‘s decision to head back to Old Trafford. Pogba is coming off a starring role in United’s 4-1 win over Fenerbahce, and Conte guided the French midfielder during their time at Juventus.

“It was Paul Pogba’s dream was to return to Manchester United. I wish him well, but only after this game.”

Conte said John Terry is available to return for Chelsea, and that could be invaluable against a big, strong forward like United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With the Red Devils having played Thursday, Conte will like his chances a bit more than usual.

Canada vs. U.S. among top-notch CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals

VANCOUVER, CANADA - JUNE 20:  Gershon Koffie #28 of the Vancouver Whitecaps brings the ball up field against Dax McCarty #11 of the New York Red Bulls at B.C. Place on June 20, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jessica Haydahl/Getty Images)
Photo by Jessica Haydahl/Getty Images
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The bracket is set for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and ensures that at least one MLS vs. Liga MX semifinal will happen next Spring.

No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls will cross the continent to meet No. 8 Vancouver Whitecaps, with the winner moving on to face the victor of Mexico’s Tigres UANL vs. Pumas UNAM.

[ VIDEO: Previewing all 10 PL matches ]

The possibility of an all-Liga MX or all-MLS final still exists, with Pachuca and FC Dallas on opposite sides of the bracket. Arabe Unido gives Panama hope for its first CCL semifinalist, while Saprissa can be Costa Rica’s first semifinalist since 2011.

Of the remaining teams, only Pachuca has won a title in the CCL era (2008-present). Tigres lost in the 2016 final, the only other team to make it that far.

Full schedule
New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (8)
Tigres UANL (4) vs. Pumas UNAM (5)
Arabe Unido (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Pachuca (3) vs. Saprissa (4)

The first legs will be played in late February, and the bright side to the intra-league quarters will be one MLS side waiting a round before facing a more in-form club playing a traditional season schedule (though that’s an overblown excuse at this point).

Some fans don’t care much for the tournament, while others — myself included — are extremely keen to see an MLS team win the CCL and represent North America in the Club World Cup, where it can get a high profile litmus test in a serious competition (Real Madrid beat Cruz Azul 4-0 in a 2014 semifinal).