MLS Preview: Sporting Kansas City at Houston Dynamo

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  • Teams sit second, third in the Eastern Conference.
  • Houston has eliminated Kansas City from the last two postseasons.
  • Zusi, Besler out for Sporting; Garcia, Taylor missing for Houston.

Two years ago, Houston moved to the Eastern Conference. Ever since, the Dynamo have been the biggest obstacle between Sporting Kansas City and an MLS Cup final. Twice Sporting’s claimed first in the East, and twice it was rendered meaningless once eliminated by the Dynamo.

So Wednesday’s match in Houston (8:30 p.m. Eastern) should provide some insight as to where the teams stand with three weeks left in the season. Though Kansas City has made changes since last season — eschewing some Espinoza/Cesar brutality for a little Feilhaber/Rosell quality — Sporting’s on roughly the same level as last year. A win in Houston could hint this squad’s ready take the extra step. A stumble and not only will tracking down New York (and, the Supporters’ Shield) become  more difficult, but Kansas City will be given new reason to doubt by what’s turning into an old nemesis.

That may be reading too much into a regular season game (we’ll have to see how the match plays out), but given the familiarity the teams built in the last two postseasons, a match this late in the year’s bound to carry special meaning. For Houston, a team that’s had postseason success the last two seasons, perhaps getting into the playoffs will be enough, but for a Kansas City team that’s seen the Dynamo undermine their regular season success, a hiccup could leave a lasting effect.

Then there’s the little matter of the standings. Kansas City’s second in the East. Houston’s third. If those places hold, these teams meet for a homa-and-home in the conference semifinals. Third time’s a charm, right KC fans? Montréal, one point back of the Dynamo, have a game in hand, so tomorrow’s match may not be an outright playoff preview; regardless, we’re likely to learn a lot about how each team’s positioning themselves going into the postseason.

Houston will get a small boost from the return of Andrew Driver, the winger’s calf injury having sidelined him during the Dynamo’s recent surge. With Boniek Garcia on international duty, the Scot’s return comes at the perfect time, giving Dominic Kinnear an alternative to Jason Johnson wide.

The international break isn’t as forgiving for Sporting. Graham Zusi, the team’s best player going forward, will be with the U.S. national team, as will Matt Besler, half of the team’s league-best defensive duo. The depth at Peter Vermes’ disposal means quality options will be ready to step in, but with the difference between these sides so small to begin with, the loss of two key players could play a major part.

That in addition to the increased stakes for Houston provide a couple of reasons to see the Dynamo as favorites. Kansas City has the Supporters Shield in view, but they’re otherwise both securely in the playoffs and likely to finish in the East’s top two. Houston, on the other hand, are only four points clear of sixth. When deciding who’s more likely to win a game, always start with who wants it more.

Lose this weekend, and Houston could be back in a fight for their playoff lives. Win, and they move closer to avoiding another four-five, play-in game. They also move closer to a third-straight postseason meeting with Kansas City.

Watford 2-0 West Ham: No dream start for Moyes

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  • Unhappy debut for Moyes
  • Hart, Gomes make wild saves
  • Hughes scores early
  • Richarlison adds insurance

Will Hughes and Richarlison scored on either side of half time to lift Watford to a 2-0 win over visiting West Ham on Sunday at Vicarage Road.

It’s a debut loss for new Irons boss David Moyes, whose club remains in the Premier League’s 18th position.

Watford rises to eighth, with 18 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

West Ham looked bright and industrious in the first 10 minutes, yet Watford had a lead in the 11th.

Andre Gray whiffed on a shot, and the ball bobbled to Hughes for an advantageous finish.

Watford was on the back foot for much of the latter stages in the first half. A slick one-touch endeavor ended with Heurelho Gomes getting a piece of Cheikhou Kouyate‘s low shot.

Gomes then twice denied Marko Arnautovic, the first an incredible leg save.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Kouyate and Abdoulaye Doucoure traded chances early in the second half, with neither on frame.

Andre Gray and Doucoure worked a fine 58th minute chance, with Winston Reid‘s slight deflection stopping Gray from curling inside the far post. Joe Hart made a terrific save as Watford then pressed off the ensuing corner kick.

Richarlison put it away, essentially, with a 64th minute goal. Hughes handled the ball in the run-up, but the Brazilian’s finish was electrifying.

It’s Richarlison’s fifth PL goal of the season, matching his half-season total with Fluminese.

Christian Kabasele blocked a Lanzini rip off the line in the 74th minute as the Irons kept battling for an unlikely comeback.

Italian president’s burning remarks provide path for USMNT

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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There’s no question whether the Italian national team job is a different class than the United States men’s national team.

Aside from the fact that both sides failed to qualify for the World Cup, have a vacant manager’s chair, and decent recent results at youth level, the disparity is striking (and not all in negative ways for American fans).

[ MORE: McKennie impresses again ]

Italy has won four World Cups and a EURO, and played in four additional title games. Their domestic league is Top Five, and only six pool players who’ve been called up in the last 12 months come from outside Serie A. Three play in the Premier League, two in La Liga, and one in Ligue 1. It’s qualifying slate meant top Spain or face a home-and-home playoff with another top European team.

On the other hand, the U.S. faces the most forgiving qualifying run this side of Oceania. It’s room for improvement on the international stage is much higher, and its current group is so much further from its potential than the Italian side that it’s hard to find an apt comparison (Consider that, playoff loss aside, Italy has beat the following sides in the last 18 months: Belgium, Spain, Netherlands, and Uruguay).

Differences/similarities aside — and yes, it’s a tad ridiculous to get this deep into what separates Italy from the U.S. in terms of soccer — the USSF could do worse than monitoring how the Italians are handling their World Cup disaster.

1) Accepting responsibility without caveats about their previous successes — Here’s federation president Carlo Tavecchio (who it must be noted has said some reprehensible racist things. We would never gloss over something like that, but we’re talking about the soccer side here). After blasting player selection, he then said, ‘Yeah, but I hired the dude”:

“How can you not play [Lorenzo] Insigne? I told the staff, not him. I can’t intervene [with the coach], there are rules. I have to acknowledge it; I chose the coach. It’s been four days that I haven’t slept. I wake up continuously. We have always played crosses against tall defenders, some almost two meters tall. We had to play around them with the little players, who were on the bench.”

2) Waiting a while to make the correct move — By most accounts, this is very much the plan for the United States (especially with a presidential election looming in February). While most new presidents wouldn’t begrudge the hiring of an highly-qualified name, plenty of prospective bosses would want to wait until the new (or current) man in charge cements his place.

Tavecchio dropped plenty of names, and is especially interested in Chelsea’s Antonio Conte. And he said it’ll be worth the wait.

“We’re looking for the best. They already have commitments until June from a contractual point of view. Then when we get to June, who will be free? The ones are Ancelotti, Conte, Allegri, [Claudio] Ranieri and Mancini. This is the truth of those available.”

Granted the U.S. does not have the wealth of elite experience coaches that Italy does, but the Americans are also not limited to hiring an American.

USMNT interim boss Dave Sarachan is a respected soccer name who is not going to light the shop on fire while the right hire is made during this upcoming string of friendlies.

It’s a top-bottom failure. It includes nearly every part of the system, but the man in charge is the most important part considering that the USMNT should qualify for every World Cup and somehow managed to bungle it.

America needs a bungle-free hire.

McKennie impresses again as Schalke goes second

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Schalke will enter the Revierderby in the Bundesliga’s second place after a 2-0 win over Hamburg on Sunday.

Franco Di Santo and Guido Burgstaller scored for Schalke, but those getting their eyes on USMNT teen Weston McKennie following his debut international goal got another promising feast for the eyes.

[ MORE: PST’s McKennie profile ]

Consider:

— McKennie, 19, covered 12.51 kilometers in the match, more than any other player by nearly a half km (Aaron Hunt of Hamburg ran 12.07).

— Only Burgstaller (94) recorded more individual runs than McKennie’s 91.

— His three attempts on goal were also a match-high. One was a flub, but another was barely redirected out for a corner.

— He’s now started five-straight matches when fit.

A win over Christian Pulisic’s Borussia Dortmund on Nov. 25 would put Schalke’s rivals six points in the rear view. And McKennie’s played a far bigger role than even we suspected during our preseason chat.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 12 9 2 1 30 8 22 5-1-0 4-1-1 29
 FC Schalke 04 12 7 2 3 16 10 6 4-2-1 3-0-2 23
 RB Leipzig 12 7 2 3 20 15 5 4-1-0 3-1-3 23
 Mönchengladbach 12 6 3 3 21 21 0 3-1-2 3-2-1 21
 Borussia Dortmund 12 6 2 4 29 16 13 3-0-2 3-2-2 20

Rashford’s childhood hero played for USMNT (Take one guess)

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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But can he grow a beard?

Manchester United attacker Marcus Rashford is known for his darting runs and clever finishes, but he grew up begging to get between the sticks with a lot of love for an American.

“Howard was my idol. I used to have a little Tim Howard shirt.”

[ MORE: Dempsey still wants USMNT role ]

Rashford said he’d ask his youth coach to allow him to play goal so he could mimic his hero, who at the time was the Manchester United backstop and now USMNT legend.

The 20-year-old was nine when Howard left Old Trafford, but it hasn’t changed his enjoyment for tending goal. Rashford joked that he’s got to be the choice to replace David De Gea in case of a post-sub emergency.