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)

FIFA subjects 2026 Morocco World Cup bid to fresh scrutiny

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Morocco’s World Cup bid is facing fresh scrutiny this week with the arrival of another delegation from FIFA after an initial task force found deficiencies in the proposals for the 2026 tournament.

In a downbeat conclusion to the visit by the FIFA inspectors last week, Morocco’s bid leader acknowledged it had to improve the quality of the submission made to FIFA in March because inadequacies were identified by football’s governing body.

[ MORE: UCL semifinals predictions ]

The previously unplanned second inspection of Morocco is an indication of the more rigorous process introduced by FIFA following criticism in 2010 that World Cups were awarded to the riskiest nations in 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar).

There will also be closer scrutiny of human rights of the bidders before the vote on June 13 when Morocco is currently due to be taking on a joint challenge from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Associated Press revealed last week Morocco did not declare its anti-LGBT law to FIFA in the human rights risk assessment included in the bid book. The documents – along with the North American submission – will now be scrutinized for any gaps by human rights experts.

“That process involves an expert third-party assessment of the robustness of the human rights content of both bids that will directly inform the administration’s own evaluation,” Rachel Davis, who sits on FIFA’s human rights advisory board, told the AP.

“We are confident that the process will result in a fair assessment of the human rights situation in all four countries involved in the bids, and a roadmap for how to deal with any deficiencies that FIFA will then require the successful bidder to commit to.”

Davis, who is managing director of the Shift human rights organization, said an evaluation of the human rights in the bidding nations will be included in a report to the FIFA Council, which will also assess the verdict of the evaluation task force. A bid with low scores can be blocked by the council from advancing to a vote of up to 207 football nations at the FIFA Congress on June 13.

While Morocco has said it needs to spend almost $16 billion on infrastructure for the 48-team World Cup, including building or renovating all 14 stadiums, North American does not require any tournament-specific building work. Morocco bid president Moulay Hafid Elalamy said at the end of the FIFA inspection that officials “made some remarks on the conditions of some of the stadiums.”

The new batch of technical staff being deployed from FIFA HQ to Morocco did not make a similar follow-up visit to North America after the task force inspected the rival bid’s facilities this month.

“Following the visit of the 2026 bid evaluation task force to Morocco last week, it was decided to have an additional working visit this week to complement the initial analysis of the task force and clarify some aspects of the bid,” FIFA told the AP.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Watch Live: Everton v. Newcastle

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Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both sitting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream Everton-Newcastle ]

Sam Allardyce and Rafael Benitez have both been around the block a few times but at the moment Allardyce is under pressure and Benitez is working miracles with four wins on the spin as the newly-promoted Magpies have stayed solid defensively all season.

In team news Everton start Tosun, Walcott and Bolasie in attack with Wayne Rooney in midfield.

Newcastle make one change with Islam Slimani making his first start for the Magpies as he comes in for Dwight Gayle.

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Everton

Newcastle United

UEFA Champions League semifinal predictions

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With the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League to kick off over the next few days, let’s take a look at both games and predict which teams will make it to the final in Kiev on May 26.

[ MORE: Champions League scores

Liverpool or Roma? Real Madrid or Bayern Munich?

Here’s the lowdown as two eagerly anticipated games take center stage across Europe.


Liverpool vs. AS Roma
First leg: Apr. 24, 2:45 p.m. ET at Anfield
Second leg: May 2, 2:45 p.m. ET at Stadio Olimpico

This should be one heck of a tie with defending optional for both teams but both have very different ways of playing. Jurgen Klopp will unleash the fluid trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on an often brittle Roma defense but the Italian giants have a giant in their own up top in the shape of Edin Dzeko. How Virgil Van Dijk and Liverpool’s defense deal with the threat of Dzeko will likely decide the outcome of this game. Liverpool will look to feed off the famous Anfield atmosphere to wrack up a big first leg lead before they head to Roma for Leg 2, and I fancy Salah to blow his old team away in the first leg. Liverpool to advance 4-2 on aggregate.

Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
First leg: Apr. 25, 2:45 p.m. ET at Allianz Arena
Second leg: May 1, 2:45 p.m. ET at Santiago Bernabeu

A proper heavyweight clash as Bayern and Real do battle knowing that whoever wins will be the favorites in the final. Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life (again) after a slow start to this season and Zinedine Zidane’s side made hard work of it against Juventus in the last round but are on course for a third-straight UCL trophy. As for Bayern, they have been in imperious form and you feel like Robert Lewandowski can get the better of Real’s center backs. Expect this to be a tight game with extremely high quality from both teams. Real being at home in the second leg is a big advantage. Real Madrid to advance 3-2 on aggregate. 

Cologne’s Hector extends contract despite likely relegation

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COLOGNE, Germany (AP) Germany defender Jonas Hector has shunned reported interest from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund by extending his contract with Cologne – despite the club’s almost certain relegation from the Bundesliga.

Cologne, eight points from safety with three games remaining, says its 27-year-old captain has signed a two-year extension to 2023 instead of using a release clause in his contract.

Hector, who has been at the club since 2010, says, “It wouldn’t have been a problem to switch to another club after this season but it didn’t feel right for me. I belong to Cologne and want to tackle the new season with the team and the fans behind us.”

Cologne sporting director Armin Veh says Hector’s decision is, “a great signal for the team, the club and our fans.”