MLS playoff focus: Notes on Sporting KC ahead of Saturday’s first leg against Houston

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Ahead of Saturday’s first leg of this Eastern Conference finals series, here are the must-knows about Peter Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City. A trip to MLS Cup 2013 is on the line. (Saturday’s match kicks off at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and can also been seen on NBC Sports Live Extra)

  • Aurelien Collin destined to score in the series?

As a center back, Aurelien Collin’s main mission is to make life miserable for opposition attackers. And he’s pretty good at it. Not just because Sporting had the league’s best defensive record this year (30 goals allowed in 34 games), but because he’s a real stinker at getting under his opponent’s skin.

Meanwhile, goals are a bonus for defenders – even if it doesn’t look that way lately for Sporting Kansas City’s French antagonist. Heck, it almost seems like he’s destined to score in this two-game series.

Collin (pictured) scored his team’s lone goal earlier this year as SKC snapped the Dynamo’s record 36-game home unbeaten streak in all competitions. Sporting was the first team to win in Houston since June of 2011, so that was a big strike for the irascible SKC veteran.

Collin has also scored twice in the 2013 playoffs, once in each of the club’s two matches in the just-completed home-and-away series against New England. His 69th-minute goal at the far post last weekend outside of Boston was nothing short of massive, even if SKC lost that night. It allowed his club to return to Sporting Park with a one-goal deficit, physhologically so much better than a two-goal margin to make up.

Collin opened the scoring just before halftime of Wednesday’s return leg.

(MORE: PST match preview, Sporting KC at Houston)

  • Yellow card warning for SKC

Three-fourths of Sporting Kansas City’s back line is on yellow card warning and would miss the return leg with a booking Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium. That’s hardly a surprise considering notoriously physical KC led the league in fouls and bookings this year. Still, this is surely a concern and could certainly influence Saturday’s contest at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Right back Chance Myers, left back Seth Sinovic, center back Aurelien Collin and forward Teal Bunbury all collected one caution in the two-game set against New England.

Two yellow cards in the playoffs means the offender sits out the following match. By MLS rules, however, if a player collects his second post-season booking in the second-leg of the conference finals, he will not miss the MLS Cup final.

  • Claudio Bieler? No problems here!

The curious case of Argentine forward Claudio Bieler gets more strange by the day.

He didn’t even travel last week for Sporting Kansas City’s road match to open the playoffs, at New England. That’s a pretty significant development for a Designated Player. So it fueled speculation that Bieler had found a spot in Vermes’ doghouse, perhaps for returning from recent injury out of shape.

Or, it could have just been that Bieler didn’t score enough after a hot start in his first year at Sporting Park, and that management was trying to run him off. Before Wednesday’s overtime strike, Bieler had not scored since Sept. 7 (and that was on a penalty kick). Dom Dwyer and Bunbury have gotten Bieler’s minutes since then.

Bieler didn’t start in Wednesday’s return leg – but did get in the game off the bench and help decide the series with a late goal. So, is there a problem? Manager Peter Vermes was asked about it Friday in a national teleconference.

He said there was no problem. Everything was fine.

Nothing to see here, folks. So just move along.

(MORE: What we learned from Sporting Kansas City’s win over New England)

Reports: Barcelona holding talks with Verratti’s agent

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Barcelona has their eyes set on a new Andres Iniesta.

Sure, projecting anyone to meet Ballon d’Or finalist standards is silly, but news that Barca has had multiple meetings with Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti does inspire comparison hunting.

[ MORE: Klopp explains Lovren extension ]

An influential and creative central midfielder, the 24-year-old Verratti is 8.5 years younger than Iniesta and wowed Barca in the first leg of PSG’s ill-fated UEFA Champions League tie with the Catalans.

Mundo Deportivo, amongst others, reports that Verratti feels life at PSG has gotten stale and that Barca is one of the few clubs that represents a significant jump up in class. He’s also been linked with Real Madrid and Manchester United in the past few transfer windows.

Verratti has a contract through 2020-21, so any purchase will not be cheap considering PSG’s desire to continue growing its status as a UCL contender. The Italian is 21 times capped by the Azzurri.

Klopp talks new Lovren deal, Top Four worries, Watford

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Liverpool announced a new contract for Dejan Lovren on Friday, complete with the requisite “I love my club” comments from the defender.

Then Jurgen Klopp got his hands on a microphone.

The outspoken manager explained that re-signing Lovren to a new “long-term” deal ensures that the Croatian spends the best years of his career with the Reds.

[ MORE: Top PL Storylines ]

He also spoke plainly about Lovren’s perceived struggles and successes since arriving at Anfield from Southampton in 2014.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“If Dejan played for another club you would want to sign him – and pay a lot of money. He is 27, the best time is still to come.”

“If you’d asked fans after the Dortmund game they would said give him a 20-year contract. After the Palace game fans would have said ‘can we find another team who will have him?’ Truth is somewhere in between.”

Turning to Monday’s trip to Watford, Klopp isn’t concerned about the chance that his Reds will open the day outside the Top Four if Man City and Manchester United both win at the weekend.

He also says the Reds could have Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge at Vicarge Road, though Jordan Henderson remains out.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Bournemouth

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  • Sunderland won 2-1 on Nov. 5
  • Fourth meeting since 1990
  • Sunderland leads all-time 5W-3D-1L

Sunderland looks to keep its faint hopes of Premier League safety alive by managing a season sweep of Bournemouth when the two sides meet at the Stadium of Light on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Black Cats are a mess, having lost to Tees-Wear Derby rivals Middlesbrough on Wednesday and living 12 points back of 17th place Swansea City.

Bournemouth battered Middlesbrough 4-0 last weekend to move seven points clear of the drop zone, and can finish the day in the top half with a win up north.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss David Moyes on calls for him to quit“I’m here, I’m the manager, you take it on the chin. … I’m a football supporter, I know what it’s like. You don’t like seeing your team lose. There is nobody who wants to win more than me. I am used to winning, I’m not used to losing and I don’t want to get used to it either.”

Bournemouth captain Simon Francis on Sunderland’s woes“It just show how things can happen when clubs are not run properly. If we do lose Sunderland from the Premier League it will be a real shame. They are an enormous club and playing at grounds like theirs is the pinnacle of anyone’s career.”

 

Prediction

The Black Cats haven’t quit, but manage two fewer points than they need, all but heading for the Championship after a 2-2 draw.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Hull City

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  • Hull won 2-1 on Nov. 6
  • Tigers two points clear of drop zone
  • Saints lead all-time 23W-20D-15L

After back-to-back losses to Man City and Chelsea, Saints meet a different kind of desperation when Hull City arrives at St. Mary’s (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

With a win, Hull can move five points clear of the final relegation spot and heap pressure on Swansea City, who plays Sunday. With a loss, Marco Silva’s men open the 17th place door for Swans.

[ MORE: JPW on Romeu the Destroyer ]

Since the start of the 2011-12 season in the Championship, Southampton has won six of seven matches against Hull. That seventh, however, was the match at the KCOM Stadium earlier this season, one that saw now-West Ham man Robert Snodgrass spur a Tigers comeback.

Saints open the day four points back of eighth place West Brom, and also hold a match-in-hand on the Baggies.

What they’re saying

Saints boss Claude Puel on slump busting“After two losses it’s important to move forward now and take points on Saturday in front of our own fans. We have to improve in the right areas and find a good balance of play, but also a good clinical edge in both penalty areas.”

Marco Silva on Hull’s away troubles““We have conceded goals on the counter-attack away from home in games when the result has been looking good for us – we cannot make it possible for our opponents to do this to us. The second goal we conceded at Stoke is an example of this – conceded at a time when we were in control of the game. Details like this are making the difference and these are things we must look to change. This is clear to me and I pass this on to my players.”

Prediction

Saints have more quality than Hull, but may not have as much fire in the belly. Still, home field means a lot here and Southampton should reverse the score line from November’s tilt. 2-1, with Manolo Gabbiadini and Dusan Tadic leading the way.