New England Revolution v Houston Dynamo

MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Houston ahead of Thursday’s meeting with Montreal

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Ahead of Thursday’s single elimination playoff between Houston and Montreal, here are the most-knows about the Dynamo ahead of the 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff at BBVA Compass Stadium (NBCSN):

  • Jermaine Taylor is out

Even if he doesn’t have the global soccer chops of Alessandro Nesta – Montreal’s veteran Italian center back, who is also out for the match – Houston will definitely miss center back Jermaine Taylor.

The Jamaican international is one of Major League Soccer’s underrated men, quietly and steadily going about the defensive business around BBVA Compass Stadium, a 26-game starter both of the last two years. Taylor has the right blend of speed, toughness, determination and instincts that make him hard to beat.

Changing center backs is hardly what you want when facing 20-goal-scorer Marco Di Vaio, who rides the line and will be caught offside a few times – but is always a threat to sneak in behind the back four. Fortunately for Houston, Eric Brunner does not represent a huge dropoff alongside longtime central presence Bobby Boswell, with 19 starts of his own over the last two years.

  • Warren Creavalle and Ricardo Clark manning the middle

The Dynamo caught MLS off guard with the late-summer trade of Adam Moffat, a relative midfield fixture in orange over the last two years, to Seattle. What the Dynamo was really saying with this move: young Warren Creavalle is ready.

With Creavalle and Ricardo Clark (pictured), the Dynamo midfield becomes more mobile and athletic, able to cover far more ground. The Dynamo midfield was the difference earlier this month as Houston topped Montreal at BBVA, 1-0. (Of course, Patrice Bernier wasn’t available for the Impact; he’s healthy and available for Thursday, a huge boost for the visitors.)

Creavalle is a second-year pro out of Central Florida.

  • Dynamo options off the bench

Houston’s midfield depth is the envy of most MLS sides. On the flanks, especially, Dominic Kinnear has good options off the bench.

Andrew Driver never found a starting spot with the Orange – but that has a lot to do with Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia, who would start on the outside for a lot of clubs. Driver is a young, left-sided natural who likes taking on defenders.

Former Colorado Rapids MLS Cup winner Omar Cummings can also play out wide, and provides an extra element of speed out there if the Dynamo needs a change-up late in the match.

  • Houston in playoff games in Houston … pretty darn good

Kinnear’s team is 8-1 in playoff games in Houston since moving to South Texas from San Jose in 206.

The one loss still stands as one of the real shockers of MLS playoff history, a 3-0 thumping from New York, which had the right matchups (Dane Richards tormenting the Dynamo left side) on the right day and prevailed 3-0 en route to an MLS Cup appearance.

(More on MLS playoffs: Previewing Montreal Impact at Houston Dynamo)

LIVE: Man City, Stoke, Everton face second-tier teams in League Cup quarters

Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City FC
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Three of the four Capital One Cup quarterfinals take place on Tuesday with three Premier League teams facing second-tier opposition.

“What’s that, did somebody say banana skin?”

[ MORE: Follow League Cup scores live

Manchester City host Hull City at the Etihad Stadium with Manuel Pellegrini‘s side hoping to have David Silva back in the starting lineup but Joe Hart is still out injured so Willy Caballero will continue in goal. Steve Bruce‘s side drew 1-1 at the Etihad last season when they visited City before being relegated from the Premier League. The Tigers are fighting for instant promotion back to the big-time and knocked out Leicester City on penalty kicks in the last round.

Everton face a tricky trip to the Riverside Stadium as Roberto Martinez and the Toffees play Middlesbrough. Aitor Karanka’s side lost in the play-off final to Norwich last season but are looking good for promotion this term as they sit second in the second-tier and knocked out Manchester United on penalty kicks in the last round. Can Everton sort out their defensive frailties?

A third PL club has a tricky test coming up on Tuesday as Stoke City’s reward for beating Chelsea on PKs in the last round is a home game against Sheffield Wednesday. This will be no stroll in the park for Mark Hughes‘ side as the second-tier Owls comfortably knocked off Arsenal in the last round and this game has “cupset” written all over it.

Below are the fixtures for Tuesday as you can click on the link above to follow all the games live.

League Cup quarterfinals


Manchester City vs. Hull City – 2:45 p.m. ET
Middlesbrough vs. Everton – 2:45 p.m. ET
Stoke City vs. Sheffield Wednesday – 2:45 p.m. ET

FIFA sponsors demand “independent oversight” of reforms
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LONDON (AP) Five of FIFA’s sponsors have written to the executive committee of soccer’s scandal-battered governing body demanding “independent oversight” of the reform process.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

Sponsors were originally promised places on the FIFA reform committee. But instead of being invited into meetings discussing the overhaul of the organization, they have only been offered seats on an advisory board which is yet to be appointed.

The sponsors’ letter was sent from Adidas, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Visa and Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch to FIFA’s ruling body ahead of meetings this week.

[ MORE: Chelsea, United battle for Muller

The letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press, says it is “clear to us that such independent oversight needs to run long-term through the implementation and evolution of the reform process.”

The reform committee was established following the indictment of soccer officials by American authorities.

VIDEO: Gerrard returns to Liverpool for training in MLS offseason

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League
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Steven Gerrard is back at Liverpool.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

The legendary midfielder, 35, has returned to the Reds just six months after leaving his hometown club for a new adventure in Major League Soccer with the LA Galaxy.

Gerrard spent a glittering 17-years at Anfield, guiding Liverpool to the UEFA Champions League title and winning every other major title except for the elusive Premier League crown.

[ MORE: Chelsea, United battle for Muller

After suffering an early exit from the 2015 MLS Cup playoffs with the Galaxy, Gerrard is now back in England and he’s using his time at home to train with Liverpool’s first-team and help out in any way he can as Jurgen Klopp has allowed him to come back into the dressing room he called home for nearly two decades.

“It’s a good situation,” Klopp said. “Everybody had a smile on their face when they saw Stevie. It’s good to have him here and we hope we can help him, and he can help us for sure with being in the dressing room. It’s cool.”

Below are photos and videos from Gerrard’s return as Klopp once again quashed any rumors regarding a loan move for the former Liverpool skipper who will enter his first full MLS season in 2016 with the Galaxy.

French PM says Benzema has no place on national team

Karim Benzema, France
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PARIS (AP) The French prime minister joined in the criticism of Karim Benzema on Tuesday, saying the Real Madrid striker “has no place” on the France team at the European Championship in the wake of a blackmail scandal.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

Benzema is one of France’s key players as it gets ready to host the Euro 2016 tournament, but the forward faces charges of conspiracy to blackmail relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape. He is suspected of having played an active role in pressuring France teammate Mathieu Valbuena, a case that has badly damaged his reputation.

“A great athlete should be exemplary,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French radio Europe 1. “If he is not, he has no place within the France team.”

The investigation, centering on wiretap evidence, started when Valbuena took legal action after being contacted by a man claiming to possess an incriminating sex tape.

In a case that could drag on for months, Benzema’s involvement has not yet been fully determined. But investigators who charged him in October believe he was approached by a childhood friend to act as an intermediary and convince Valbuena to deal directly with the blackmailers.

“If a minister was handed preliminary charges, he would no longer be part of the government,” Valls said.

Benzema denies any wrongdoing but his arguments were undermined last week when Valbuena spoke directly about his attempts to pressure him in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.

[ MORE: City now valued at $3 billion ]

The French football federation has also joined the case as plaintiff.

“There are so many kids, so many youngsters in our suburbs that relate to great athletes,” Valls said. “They wear the blue jersey, the colors of France, which are so important in these moments.”

Preliminary charges under French law mean magistrates have strong reason to believe a crime was committed, and allow time for further investigation. The charges may later be dropped. In 2010, Benzema was handed preliminary charges for soliciting an underage prostitute but was acquitted in a case that lasted more than three years and tarnished his reputation.

Benzema’s image was further dented last month when he spat on the pitch after the national anthem was played at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium in a tribute to the 130 fatalities of the Paris attacks ahead of a match against Barcelona.

Benzema’s action ignited a wave of criticism on social media, prompting his lawyers to issue a statement in which they condemned “the scandalous interpretation” of the incident. Benzema, who has 27 international goals, had posted several messages in support of the victims in the days that followed the attacks.