Dynamo president Chris Canetti talks Houston’s low turnout; We talk viability of a mid-week first round

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As the playoffs began last season, I had a brief Twitter exchange with Brendan Hannan (then a communication guy with Chicago) about the poor attendance at Toyota Park for the Fire’s first round match. In addition to the normal challenges facing Chicago’s ticket sales, the opening round match had fallen on Halloween. That combined with a weeknight’s trip to Bridgeview (say, 15 miles outside Chicago) and a short window to promote after their regular season finale meant only 10,923 showed up for the match.

Brendan’s explanations came to mind as I watched last night’s game in Houston, where a  crowd of 10,476 watched the Dynamo eliminate the Montréal Impact. Though the result moves Houston a step closer to their third straight MLS Cup final, the night was disappointing on separate level. Every shot of the crowd forced television viewers to wonder why a good team with a history of success can’t draw more people to their two-year-old facility.

[MORE: Houston Dynamo 3-0 Montreal Impact: Quick start lifts Houston to next round (video)]

“There were some real challenges last night,” Dynamo president Chris Canetti told me this afternoon, his sanguine explanation putting the low turnout in a different content. A practical conspiracy of factors — from the holiday, to short turn-around, to weather and a crowded sports week —  helped produce the team’s season-low crowd.

The biggest issue was the holiday. For the second straight year, Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference playoffs started on Halloween. For a league and sport that tends to draw a younger audience, it’s a killer coincidence.

“For a huge percentage of our fanbase, that was the issue,” according to Canetti. “Halloween is a time you spend with your kids and you do things. I think that was a very difficult obstacle to overcome.”

It could have been overcome, Canetti feels, had other factors not lined up against the team. Houston was hit by another of their characteristic mini-monsoons mid-week, causing flooding throughout southeast Texas. By early afternoon on Thursday, the showers had been turned off, but the storm still kept people away from BBVA Compass.

The University of Houston also had a football game, forcing some fans to make a choice, but the bigger problem may have been an unexpectedly crammed media landscape. At a time of the year when the Dynamo can usually gain some traction, Dwight Howard was making his debut for the Rockets and the Texans were changing quarterbacks. Add in the unfortunate passing of local legend Bum Phillips, and Houston was squeezed out.

source: AP
Houston averaged over 21,000 fans for their two 2012 playoff games. On Thursday, they drew less than 11,000 for their playoff opener. (Photo: AP Photo.)

“The Dynamo have a great track record for attendance, particularly playoff attendance,” Canetti notes, the team averaging over 21,000 for their two 2012 playoff games. “One of the reasons we were able to drive such a great attendance in years’ past is because we were able to elevate our brand and get huge media exposure in the market. The media market was very cluttered this week in Houston.”

Given four days to get the word out, Houston couldn’t penetrate that market. The people who ended up at the stadium were the diehards.

“Those fans were loud, the ones that were there,” Canetti says. “Those are our most ardent supporters. They brought it last night.”

Like Chicago, Houston’s situation is unique, but as places like Kansas City, Portland, and Seattle show, there’s more to a full house than nice numbers and lined pockets. If you can fill out a stadium, the television product is much better, and if there’s one thing the league needs to be concerned about more than anything else, it’s how it comes off on broadcast. It’s part of the reason why the English and German leagues come off a little better than Spain’s (non-Barça, Real Madrid) or Portugal’s. It’s also the reason why a Philadelphia Union match creates a better broadcast experience than a D.C. United game.

Dynamo fans did seem louder than the 10,000-person crowds we see elsewhere, but with seas of orange seats visible around the stadium, MLS didn’t put their best foot forward. Instead of marveling at how far the league has come, people tuning in last night might wonder how far MLS needs to go.

“We’re a growing league, we’ve got an incredibly bring future,” Canetti confessed. “These are bumps in the road along the way.”

“I don’t think anybody wishes that we have to play mid-week playoff games, especially on a Halloween. That would include the folks at the league office. I certainly understand the scheduling challenges that put us in this position, especially this year as we have to battle a FIFA window coming up.”

But at some point, you have to set priorities. In that sense, maybe reducing the regular season schedule does make sense, providing a solution that will give the league more flexibility when scheduling these all-important, marquee matches. Or if a solution can’t be found for the first round game, perhaps eliminating them entirely should be considered. Four playoff teams in each conference seems like enough, even if Houston wouldn’t have made last year’s playoffs with a smaller field.

There’s little point to putting matches on television that aren’t going to show the league in a positive light. Did last night’s game cross that line? Perhaps not, but casual MLS fans tuning in for a playoff atmosphere didn’t get it. And it wasn’t the Dynamo’s fault.

“It’s not that we stink or we don’t know what we’re doing here,” Canetti explains. “We’ve got some real, real challenges that need to be understood.”

For teams like Houston and Chicago, those challenges include fighting for space in crowded sports landscapes. For MLS, the task is putting their franchises in the best position to win those battles.

Does the mid-week, quick turnaround playoff game do that? Not Thursday in Houston. Not last year in Chicago.

Guardiola eyes January deals after winning Manager of Month

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Scary news: Manchester City are looking to improve in the January transfer window.

Pep Guardiola confirmed on Friday that Premier League leaders Man City will look to buy a new central defender in January.

City, currently on a record-breaking 15-game winning run and sitting 11 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, have Nicolas Otamendi, Vincent Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala and John Stones as their center backs, but both Stones and Kompany have been out injured recently.

Speaking to the media ahead of City’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com), Guardiola revealed he is keen to add defensive reinforcements.

“We speak about (January signings) with the club and Txiki Begiristain (the club’s director of football),” Guardiola said. “We have just three guys in central defense. We don’t want to sign someone for a few months. We want to sign them for years and we have to make sure it’s the right guy.”

Who could come in?

Virgil Van Dijk and Jonny Evans were both linked with moves to Man City in the summer and it is an area of the pitch City clearly want to add in. Southampton have said that van Dijk will not be leaving this season but if a massive offer arrives in January then it may be tough for the struggling Saints to turn it down this time after VVD wanted to push through a move to Liverpool in the summer.

As for Evans, he is playing week in, week out at West Brom but his future remains far from clear with Arsenal and Man City both looking to add the former Manchester United center back in the summer.

Aside from transfer talk, Guardiola was also named the Premier League Manager of the Month for November earlier on Friday, with the Spaniard winning the award for the third-straight month.

Only Antonio Conte had achieved that feat in PL history before but City’s boss isn’t getting ahead of himself as many have already handed his team the 2017-18 Premier League title.

“Tomorrow is an important game. Spurs are so tough. Last season and this season. Nothing is going to change – we are not going to win the Premier League tomorrow, we are not going to lose it either,” Guardiola said. “It’s important to play better, that is the most important thing. The record will always stay there until one day it is broken. I am happy not with the results but the way we play. Statistics are good but I have the feeling we can be much, much better.”

Gulp. City being better than they already are? That is a scary thought…

Mourinho: Eric Bailly out; United may look to buy in January

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Jose Mourinho has revealed that Eric Bailly requires ankle surgery and will be out for up to three months for Manchester United.

The Ivorian center back has been missing since early November after suffering the injury on international duty.

Bailly, 23, hasn’t recovered as quickly as United would have liked and his injury is more serious than originally thought.

“He [Bailly] goes to surgery, the decision is made,” Mourinho told MUTV. “I don’t say (he’s out) for the rest of the season but it’s for the next two or three months.”

United have plenty of options at center back with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo all around, but all three have been out with injuries during this season. That said, Bailly is by far United’s most consistent and reliable defender and having him out until February or March is a big blow for Mourinho.

As for the January transfer market, Mourinho may not go and buy a replacement for Bailly but he did hint at perhaps doing some business in the January even though he isn’t the biggest fan of the mid-season window.

“Not a big defender of the January market,” Mourinho said. “There are players and situations you have the chance to do and you shouldn’t lose them. I don’t like January market just to buy.”

United have been linked with a January move for Antoine Griezmann but Mourinho refused to comment on speculation linking the French international with a move to Old Trafford.

Griezmann looked set to move in the summer with United, Barcelona and PSG all interested in signing the striker, but with his manager at Atleti, Diego Simeone, saying that he will now be able to leave Atletico if the right offer comes in, surely United will be looking at bolstering their attack if the right deal can be done.

Buying in January, especially for a player of Griezmann’s caliber, usually comes at a premium but what if he has a great summer with France at the 2018 World Cup? His transfer value would surely rocket then.

With the Red Devils 11 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, they will need something special to claw back points in the second half off the campaign. Griezmann’s arrival would make everyone sit up and take notice, even if United don’t exactly need to boost their attacking talent.

Simply put: if a player of Griezmann’s caliber becomes available, as it appears is the case, you need to pull out all of the stops to try and sign him.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan‘s future at United appears to be over, so maybe if they can move the Armenian playmaker on and free up some cash to bring in Griezmann (a good friend of Paul Pogba) then a deal can be done. With Atleti not qualifying for the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, it appears the Spanish club are willing to let Griezmann leave after he handled the summer of transfer speculation admirably and remained with the La Liga outfit during their transfer embargo and move to a new stadium.

Conte on “lucky” Man City; expects to “suffer” v. Southampton

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Antonio Conte appreciates Manchester City’s incredible recording breaking 15-game winning run but admits there is an element of luck helping out Pep Guardiola‘s men too.

[ MORE: Wenger on Ozil, Wilshere ]

Conte, who took Chelsea on a 13-game winning run last season before losing to Tottenham Hotspur on Jan. 4 when they could’ve equaled the previous record, is still hoping that his side can challenge for the title despite being 14 points behind Man City.

“They are a good team but to have 15 wins in a row, you must be also lucky because in many games they won in the last minutes. When you have this type of run, for sure, you must also be a bit lucky but they are deserving this,” Conte said.

Jose Mourinho also pointed to the “luck” being in Man City’s favor and it something which is said quite a lot when a team goes on an incredible winning run. But are City really “lucky” to have grabbed late wins against the likes of Bournemouth, Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham throughout the run? Or do they just have players who are mentally focused and can deliver in key moments? It’s probably a mixture of those factors.

Conte then went on to say that his team could still defend their PL title despite City’s record-breaking start to the season.

“We must find the right way to contend the title. Not only us but Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool,” Conte said. “Time is moving on and they [Man City] are continuing to win. In the last nine game we won 7 games, drew one and lost one. The distance, the gap still improved for Manchester City. It is possible to draw away to Liverpool and lose one but now we are 14 points behind.”

So, that’s not so much a title concession from Conte but him pointing out that it will be very tough for his team to claw any points back on City. Still, it’s a little different from his comments after their loss at West Ham last weekend when he seemed to all but concede their title chances.

“So you’re saying there’s a chance….”

Heading into Chelsea’s game against Southampton at Stamford Bridge on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Conte also said he expects his team to suffer against Saints.

“Tomorrow will be very difficult,” Conte said. “Southampton are a good team with a lot of good young players with a great future and will make us suffer. They are a good team.”

In terms of Chelsea team news ahead of the game Conte revealed that David Luiz is suffering from swelling in his knee and has no return date set, while Alvaro Morata could return to the lineup after being left out for the midweek win at Huddersfield.

The Italian coach also said he will sit down with others at Chelsea to discuss potential targets in the January transfer window soon, but that the final decision on new players coming in was not his.

Wenger gives update on Ozil, Wilshere situation

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Arsene Wenger has given some intriguing updates on Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil, who are both out of contract at Arsenal on July 1, 2018.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Speaking ahead of Arsenal’s clash against Newcastle United on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com), Wenger confirmed that there has been no interest from Manchester United in Ozil and contract talks will begin with Wilshere soon.

“We have never been approached by Man United in any way, so I don’t see why that came up and who found that, that’s always something that’s been created,” Wenger said of Ozil, before adding that the German playmaker will definitely stay until the end of the season.

Reports had been rife that Ozil would be the subject of a transfer bid from Manchester United in January, with Jose Mourinho eager to link up with Ozil once again after they worked together at Real Madrid. Ozil seems happy enough at Arsenal but the 29-year-old still hasn’t signed a new deal and time is ticking.

As for Wilshere (who started his first Premier League game for Arsenal in 577 days at West Ham on Wednesday) and his future at Arsenal, Wenger stated that contract talks will begin soon with the academy product who has suffered mightily with injuries over the past few years.

“I will talk to him. I said [I would] at the end of December,” Wenger said. “We are at the beginning of December so it’s true that it’s not far, but I wanted to see, as well, how much he can contribute and how he will last physically. It is, of course, for him to be happy to be here as well, that is important. I consider him as an Arsenal man and, for him, it’s important as well to feel happy here.”

Wenger added that Wilshere has done his chances of getting a new deal no harm at all and the Arsenal academy product has certainly impressed with his performances in the Europa League this season, and in flashes when he’s played in the PL.

Whether or not Wilshere, Ozil and, of course, Alexis Sanchez, will sign new deals in January and forfeit the chance to grab a huge signing-on fee in July when they’re free agents remains to be seen. It is unlikely Ozil and Sanchez will pass on that opportunity to test the open market.

However, Wilshere signing a new deal seems the most likely and it seems increasingly likely that Ozil and Sanchez will stay at Arsenal until the end of the season unless monster transfer offers arrive in January.