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)

FC Dallas extends the contract of Oscar Pareja

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After winning the club’s second-ever U.S. Open Cup title and first-ever Supporters’ Shield last season, plus a hot start to the new term, FC Dallas has extended the contract of manager Oscar Pareja.

Pareja, who was hired as FC Dallas manager in 2014, will be at FC Dallas “for years to come” according to the club, although the terms of the contract, including the length, were not released.

“We are excited to ensure Oscar will be our head coach for many years to come,” said FC Dallas chairman and CEO Clark Hunt in a statement by the club. “As a manager and a developer of talent, Oscar has proven himself to be among the elite in our sport, and we look forward to even greater success under his leadership in the future.”

As the former head of the FC Dallas academy, Pareja has been hailed not only for his tactical abilities, but as a cultivator of new talent. His most prized possession is young midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who made his U.S. national team debut on Tuesday, and young defender Walker Zimmerman cracked the roster but has yet to debut. The club also boasts homegrown players Victor Ulloa and Jesse Gonzalez, and the official club roster features a whopping 20 players 25 years old or younger, six of whom are teenagers. The nine homegrown players are the most on any roster in MLS.

Pareja, a former FC Dallas player who made 176 league appearances for the club, said he is loving life in the city he built his career. “On behalf of my family and the people who work with me, I would like to extend my gratitude to Clark and Dan Hunt and the entire FC Dallas family for having the confidence and belief in us,” Pareja said in the statement. “Our ultimate goal is to continue developing the model, with a commitment to young players, that makes FC Dallas so successful.”

“When I came [to the United States as a player] in ’98, after a few months I had the desire to go back home. I found it difficult for me, my wife and my daughter to adjust to the culture because we didn’t know the language and that creates a little bit of a gap,” Pareja said. “The people here in Dallas, they were terrific with us and made us feel very comfortable. I started growing into the culture and in that moment things started changing. I did not for one moment, though, think that I was going to be here this many years.”

The 48-year-old Colombian stated he still desires for an MLS Cup, something which evaded FC Dallas last year after losing to Seattle in the conference semifinals.

Top PL Storylines: Merseyside Derby, relegation special

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The international break is over and the Premier League is back.

[ MORE: What’s left for each PL club? ]

This stretch run begins now, as teams have around eight more matches left in league play with which to move up or down. Who will climb the table, and who will lose spots? The best picks are below:


Merseyside clubs clinging to European places

Liverpool vs. Everton — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Everton and Liverpool doesn’t need any sideshows to hype up the heated rivalry, but a little added spice won’t hurt anything. Spice is what we have as the two teams clash at Anfield Saturday as both teams are battling for European places.

Liverpool comes into the game in fourth, four points ahead of Manchester United for the final Champions League spot. A return to Europe’s top competition is overdue for Jurgen Klopp and the Reds, having made the tournament just once since 2010. It’s been a dogfight all year at the top of the table (aside from Chelsea, of course), and Liverpool is right in the mix. A misstep here would give Manchester United the chance to climb just one point back, really putting on the pressure. For Everton, they sit in seventh, level with Arsenal on points and just two behind Manchester United. They still have a good shot at Europa League play, and any spot in a European competition is a welcome moment for an Everton team that has appeared just once since 2010.

Both teams have to contend with injuries suffered over the international break. Everton’s Seamus Coleman is out at least for the rest of the season after his nasty leg break, while Liverpool will miss Adam Lallana who aggravated a muscle injury while on duty with England and will likely be out a month.

Will Arsenal or City turn their season around?

Arsenal vs. Manchester City — 11:00 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Arsene Wenger continues to find himself under more and more pressure. It seems Pep Guardiola takes one step back for every one step forward. As the two managers meet at the Emirates on Sunday, will either man manage to get a high-profile win to boost its season’s fortunes?

The Gunners are in serious peril. Wenger has never missed the Champions League in his 20 seasons in charge, but that could all change this year as Arsenal sits in 6th on 50 points, six back of fourth position. There is little to no room for error the rest of the way, and even against a strong opponent, the Gunners cannot afford to drop more points. For Pep Guardiola, City still sits in an envious position in third place and five points clear of dropping off the top four, but it’s not been without bumps and bruises. City is without a win in its last three matches, having dumped out of the Champions League and drawn a pair in league play over that time. Both managers are struggling. Will either turn things around?

A relegation special

Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Middlesbrough is in the relegation zone. Swansea City isn’t out of the weeds yet. Premier League status could be on the line.

As the two teams meet at the Liberty Stadium, Middlesbrough can go a long way towards climbing out of the bottom 3, while Swansea City can build space from it. Boro sits in 19th place, on 22 points, five back of safety. In that final safe spot is Swansea, on 27 points, and depending on the results of this match, things could get hairy for the loser. A draw helps nobody, so expect both sides to go all out.

Spurs with a tough road test

Burnley vs. Tottenham — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Spurs sit in second, 10 points off the top but in control of the tight Champions League battle. Yet, they face a difficult challenge on Sunday. Burnley has lost just twice all season long at home, the latest coming January 2nd. Their away form has been miserable, but at home, they’re a completely different team.

Enter Tottenham, who has won three Premier League games in a row, but it’s not all rosy for the title contenders. They’re still without Harry Kane, who has returned to light training but still remains sidelined with his ankle injury. Sean Dyche can coach with the best of them in the English top flight, and it remains to be seen if Mauricio Pochettino can break down a strong Clarets defense. Spurs managed a 2-1 home win over Burnley, but a similar performance won’t get it done at the fortress of Turf Moor.

Former DC United keeper sues club plus Espindola, Olsen

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Former DC United goalkeeper Charlie Horton has filed a lawsuit naming D.C. United and Major League Soccer defendants along with Fabian Espindola and manager Ben Olsen.

The lawsuit alleges assault by Espindola which left Horton with career-ending concussion symptoms which he claims still haunt him today. Horton, born in London, was on D.C. United’s roster in 2016, but never saw the field as he failed to crack the pecking order which boasted Bill Hamid, Tally Hall, and Andrew Worra. Eventually, Horton was sent on loan to the Richmond Kickers to gain playing time.

According to the lawsuit, Espindola attacked Horton at the team training facility in late March of 2016 after an argument involving an incident in training weeks earlier. Horton did indeed officially miss seven weeks with a concussion that season, the first of two injuries he suffered that year (a broken hand ended his season).

However, the lawsuit states that Horton was not entered into MLS concussion protocol immediately, instead allowed to practice that day and only entering protocol and missing time when he reported his symptoms the following day. Horton was cleared to play in May, and was then sent on loan to Richmond.

The lawsuit states that the lingering concussion symptoms caused the end of Horton’s career. “Due to the severity of his ongoing post-concussive neurological symptoms, which directly inhibited his ability to perform at a level necessary to continue his professional career, Mr. Horton was forced to officially retire from professional soccer.”

Horton claims that Espindola’s attack was a blindsided attack, an elbow to the temple after Horton had turned to walk away from the altercation.

Manuel Neuer injured, will miss two games

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A long streak will come to an end on Saturday when Bayern Munich hosts Augsburg at Allianz Arena.

Manuel Neuer, who has started 65 straight Bundesliga matches for Bayern, will be forced to the bench after injuring his foot in training on Wednesday. That means a streak of 5,850 straight minutes played will be snapped.

The injury required minor surgery, which was performed by club doctor Markus Walther, and a club release said it “went optimally.”

The injury will see Neuer miss at least the Augsburg match plus the midweek visit to Hoffenheim. That leaves the two big matches up in the air, with Bayern set to travel to Westfalenstadion to take on Borussia Dortmund on April 8th, followed closely by the first leg against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals the following Tuesday. There was no mention of either game in the club release.

The last time Neuer missed minutes in a Bundesliga game was a home game against Eintract Frankfurt on April 11, 2015. The last time the 31-year-old missed more than three league games in a season was 2008/09 when he played for Schalke and missed the first six games of the year with a broken foot.

With the club 13 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table, the injury is likely to have little effect on the final league standings, but should Neuer end up out for either the Dortmund game or, more importantly, the match against Real Madrid, it could affect the club’s position in the Champions League.