MLS playoff focus: Notes on Houston Dynamo ahead of Wednesday’s second leg at New York

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  • Ridiculously busy days for the Dynamo

The last two weeks have been an absolute whirlwind for Dominic Kinnear’s men. Most likely, a physically taxing one, too.

On Oct. 24 they were in Central America, falling in Champions League action to Panama’s Arabe Unido. Then they traveled …

On Oct. 27, they fought their way into the post-season by winning at D.C. United. Then they traveled …

Four nights later, on Oct. 31, they cruised past Montreal in a 3-0 elimination match win over the visitors from Canada. Keep in mind, that was three consecutive “elimination” matches. That’s a lot of mental stress and required focus. …

Three days later, last Sunday, they were on the field again in that 2-2 draw with New York. That second half rally was certainly something else, but it’s also fair to wonder how much that took out of the Dynamo, who may not have a bunch in the tank anyway. …

Now, just three days after that, Kinnear’s crew will be playing its fifth match in 14 days (with four lengthy plane trips). Let that sink in.

  • Penalty kick appeal at the end Sunday

The series looks different thanks to Ricardo Salazar’s choice to eject Jamison Olave in the 65th minute Sunday.

It was the right call. Olave was late. His tackle was from behind, reckless and potentially injurious. Furthermore, it was absolutely unnecessary (not that Salazar should factor that part … just saying.)

So perhaps the man in the middle would have been more inclined to whistle the late penalty kick appeal, as center back Ibrahim Sekagya clattered into Houston striker Omar Cummings from behind a step inside the penalty area. How different would we all feel about this series if Houston could play for the draw?

(MORE: Preview of Wednesday’s match at Red Bull Arena)

  • Ricardo Clark rising

Is there a Houston Dynamo man playing better right now that center midfielder Ricardo Clark?

Admittedly, no one will ever confuse the Dynamo’s rangy midfielder, better suited for a holding role, for a pass-master of Andres Iniesta quality. But he’s doing some creating work in the middle lately, playing slightly further forward than fellow Dynamo central midfielder Warren Creavalle. He supplied some tricky stuff in the team’s 3-0 win over Montreal and then provided a lot of gritty drive as the home team rallied Sunday to make up a two-goal deficit.

Clark probably gets a little more room in midfield because the man to his right, Boniek Garcia, gets so much defensive attention, drawing the second and third defender by taking on the first opposition arrival.

  • Omar Cummings off the bench

The Dynamo may have something in the ability to bring Omar Cummings off the bench. The former, longtime Colorado Rapids striker hasn’t put much of an imprint on his first Dynamo season, with much of the year spent still in injury recovery. But he did change the game Sunday upon his introduction for Giles Barnes.

Awareness of his speed may have prompted Olave to lunge into that telling tackle (the red card), which changed this series in an instant. Cummings may have drawn that penalty kick (see the item above) and then he did find some room to poke in that stoppage time equalizer.

Kinnear seems likely to stick with Barnes to start, but look for Cummings around the 60th minute once again, depending on the situation.

  • Better set-piece service from Davis ahead?

Davis’ service on restarts wasn’t consistent Sunday, probably having something to do with the short grass at BBVA Compass Stadium, where the fall weather has erased the regional growing season.

Players on both sides commented on the fast field, and it’s difficult to hit a precise restart when there’s no room to get beneath the ball just a bit.

The Dynamo has been dangerous on corner kicks and free kicks for so long, in large part, because Davis can reliably hit balls into the near post, far post or directly on top of the primary aiming point at the top of the six-yard box.

The 2 Robbies: Terriers Triumph And Chelsea Leave It Late

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe start today’s show off by discussing Huddersfield Town’s surprising win against Manchester United (00:20), Jose Mourinho’s measured post-match interview (03:50), praise Manchester City again (10:30), discuss Sean Dyche’s next move (16:10), analyze that exciting match between Chelsea and Watford (18:30) and finally, weigh in on Slaven Bilic’s future at West Ham United (27:30).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Barca win to maintain lead, but Valencia won’t go away

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona regained a four-point cushion atop the Spanish league with a ho-hum 2-0 win over visiting Malaga and surging Valencia dismissed Sevilla 4-0 at home on Saturday.

Barcelona faced last-placed Malaga in the closing match of the day, with added pressure from second-placed Valencia, which has won five in a row.

Barcelona is unbeaten after starting with seven straight wins and drawing with Atletico Madrid last week.

Seldom-used Gerard Deulofeu opened the scoring for Barcelona after just two minutes, and Andres Iniesta celebrated his first of the season in the second half thanks to a brilliant assist by Lionel Messi.

Defending champion Real Madrid hosts Eibar on Sunday.

Barcelona benefited from a flagrant referee misjudgment to get its go-ahead goal against Malaga. Left back Lucas Digne was allowed to center the ball after it clearly crossed the byline, and Deulofeu acrobatically back-footed it inside the net.

Despite the blow, the visitors got back up and managed to neutralize Barcelona for most of the first half, but lost striker Diego Rolan just before the second period. The Uruguayan import was forced off by injury.

Without Rolan, Malaga lacked bite in its pressure of the home backline, and Barcelona was able to polish ball circulation and find Messi with more frequency.

Messi received a clean pass from defender Javier Mascherano, drew the defense, and dropped a perfect pass for Iniesta, whose shot was deflected by defender Roberto Rosales on its way to the upper left corner.

Malaga surrendered and Barcelona dominated the rest of the way.


Gonzalo Guedes opened the scoring for Valencia near halftime with a majestic strike from outside the box after deftly outmaneuvering two defenders on the chase.

Simone Zaza added his eighth league goal after the break with a spin and low cross shot. Santi Mina came off the bench and scored the third with just five minutes to go, finishing off a speedy counterattack for the hosts.

But the show was all Guedes, and the Portuguese midfielder rounded off his great game with the closer, subtly poking the ball over goalkeeper Sergio Rico in added time.

Sevilla has lost three in a row in all competitions. Managed by Eduardo Berizzo, the team started off red-hot in La Liga but has floundered lately, ranking fifth.

 

Serie A: Napoli’s perfect season ends after draw with Inter

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MILAN (AP) Napoli’s perfect start to Serie A finally came to an end on Saturday in an enthralling 0-0 home draw with Inter Milan, the only other unbeaten side in the Italian top flight.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

There were plenty of chances at the San Paolo, and Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic was kept busier than his Napoli counterpart Pepe Reina.

It was the first time since April and a 2-2 draw at Sassuolo that Napoli has failed to win in Serie A.

Napoli remained top of the standings, two points above Inter and six above Juventus and Lazio, which face Udinese and Cagliari respectively on Sunday.

[ TACTICS SESSION: Inside the brilliant mind of Kevin De Bruyne ]

Napoli was looking for a ninth successive league win. It was boosted by Lorenzo Insigne passing fit to start after injuring a thigh on Tuesday in the Champions League defeat at Manchester City.

Inter was full of confidence after Mauro Icardi’s hat trick helped it win last week’s derby against AC Milan, but it hadn’t won in Naples in 20 years.

Napoli almost went in front but Handanovic pulled off a stunning double save to deny first Jose Callejon and then keep out Dries Mertens’ rebound attempt from point-blank range.

Handanovic then kept out an effort from Insigne following a great ball over the top from Marek Hamsik.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

Inter went close shortly before halftime but Reina did well to fingertip Borja Valero’s close-range attempt over the bar.

Insigne had more chances after the break, going closest with a curling effort just past the right post.

Hamsik also fired narrowly wide, and Handanovic parried a powerful shot from substitute Piotr Zielinski.

Mertens should have won the match for Napoli in the final minute but Handanovic was again on hand to keep out his close-range volley.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

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If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

[ MORE: Matchday experience — behind the scenes at Southampton ]

The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.