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

1 Comment

Ahead of Saturday’s first leg of this Eastern Conference finals series, here are the must-knows about Dominic Kinnear’s Houston Dynamo. 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)

  • Any gas left in the Dynamo tank?

Houston is playing its 6th match in 17 days, a fairly ridiculous (and certainly taxing) run of games. Players aren’t complaining, and their mantra of “We can rest in the post-season” is an honest and logical response. Still, there has been so much travel and so many tough matches (with a lot riding on every one) that you really have to wonder about the physical state of the team.

Especially as manager Dominic Kinnear has done so little rotating in the starting lineup. He really didn’t have a choice since the team was fighting so hard to go through in Champions League, to get into the playoffs and then to advance past Montreal and then New York in those playoffs.

The team finished 120 minutes against New York on Wednesday night, flew back into Texas the next day and was right back on the practice field for a light workout Friday, just 24 hours before the weekend kickoff.

“All the guys are feeling like they played 120 minutes two nights ago, so it’s been a difficult and pretty quick turnaround,” U.S. international midfielder Brad Davis said Friday via national conference call from Houston. “It is what it is. Both teams have to handle it. I think it’s really going to be a mental thing more than a physical thing at times. I think the guys are a little bit sore, but I don’t think they care about it too much. We’re looking forward to the game.”

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

  • Ashe suspended, plus yellow card warning for the Dynamo

Houston left back Corey Ashe will sit out after collecting his second booking of the playoffs Wednesday in New York.

Two yellow cards in the playoffs means the offender sits out the following match. Right winger Boniek Garcia is the only other Houston man on caution warning. His would be an enormous loss, however, as the Dynamo’s most creative player. A killer pass from the Honduran international set the wheels in motion for Omar Cummings’ series-winner Wednesday at Red Bull Arena.

Remember, starting Jermaine Taylor is already missing along Houston’s back line. Eric Brunner has filled in for the Jamaican international.

Most likely replacement for Ashe: Mike Chabala, who has played sparingly for the Orange this year. Kinnear could also move Warren Creavalle there, as the versatile second-year man has spent some time at BBVA in the outside back position. That would require a midfield makeover, however, most likely with Davis sliding inside and Andrew Driver taking Davis wide role on the left side of Houston’s 4-4-2.

Or, could this be a way to get Omar Cummings, scorer of two critical goals off the bench against New York, into the starting 11? That would mean dropping Giles Barnes into the midfield for Creavalle.

  • Crunching numbers, and getting things right at the right time

Everyone knows Dominic Kinnear-coached teams know how to win in the playoffs. But it’s more than that; Kinnear’s teams know how to get their stuff together generally at the right time of year.

Consider that since a bad loss at home to New York back in mid-September, the Dynamo is 6-1-3 in MLS regular season and playoff matches.

Speaking of records, and since we cannot do one of these without mentioning Kinnear’s fantastic playoff record – especially since it keeps getting better in the current post-season – let’s get this over with.

Kinnear is now 14-7-4 in playoff matches with Houston. (Does he move ahead of Bruce Arena as “King of all MLS Playoffs” since the Galaxy is now out of this thing?)

And finally this: Kinnear’s team is 8-1-1 in playoff games in Houston since moving to South Texas from San Jose in 2006.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

Getty Images
1 Comment

Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

Getty Images
Leave a comment

With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

FulhamFC.com
Leave a comment

With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.