MLS Playoff Preview: Sporting Kansas City meets Houston in first leg of MLS conference final

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  • Houston has eliminated Sporting KC from the last two MLS playoffs
  • Kansas City pulled four of a possible six points from two matches at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium this year
  • Both teams are playing on very short rest, having claimed their Eastern semifinal series victories on Wednesday
  • Game time Saturday is 2:30 ET on NBC
  • It can also be seen on NBC Sports Live Extra

In terms of creating a psychological edge, this one is hard to sort out.

The remaining Eastern Conference survivors are quite familiar, especially when it comes to playoff smash-ups. Sporting Kansas City meets the Houston Dynamo on Saturday in the first leg of this home-and-away series. Houston has eliminated Houston both of the last two years en route to MLS Cup appearances (both of which the Dynamo lost to Los Angeles.)

So it’s clearly advantage Houston, right? The Dynamo, looking once again like a team of destiny in general, has this team’s number and all that, right?

Not so fast. Sporting Kansas City has a reason to be confident – or at very least has enough reason not to fear another trip into South Texas. That’s because Houston took four of a possible six points out of BBVA this year, a win and a tie in the teams’ two meetings at the orange-washed downtown ground.

In fact, Sporting Kansas City had the “honor” of being the very first team to beat Houston at BBVA. Back in May, SKC defender Aurelien Collin supplied the 73rd-minute game-winner as his team cut down Houston’s record home unbeaten streak at 36 games in all competitions. Sporting was the first team to win in Houston in almost two years, in fact, going back to June of 2011 (the last year Houston played at Robertson Stadium on the University of Houston campus).

(MORE: Sporting Kansas City notes)

“It’s obviously great from a perspective of the regular season, we’re trying to get points and chase Supporters Shield.” Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes said Friday.

“But at the same time, it really doesn’t mean anything at this point of the season. It’s a new series. … As much as those were good results, they really don’t do anything for us at the moment other than give us, at least, some idea that teams can come here and get results.”

But that seems like an awful lot, that belief that good things certainly can happen against Dominic Kinnear’s playoff masters, especially at BBVA Compass Stadium. Houston was 9-4-4 there in 2013.

One of the Dynamo draws was also to Peter Vermes’ club, a scoreless result in October at BBVA.

The teams started a conference semifinal series there last year. Kinnear’s team won, 2-0, and that second goal was absolutely massive. Sporting KC absolutely dominated the return leg – but could not quite overturn the two-goal margin and had to watch Houston celebrate advancement in its building for the second consecutive year.

Both teams will have to work against fatigue Saturday. Houston has it worse, about to play its sixth match in 17 days.

SKC, driven by U.S. international Graham Zusi and backed by the league’s top defense, arrives into Houston having eliminated New England in the conference semifinals.

Vermes’ team required an additional 30-minute period to get past the Revolution. Kinnear’s men in orange, consummate playoff grinders, also needed 30 extra minutes in upsetting the heavily favored New York Red Bulls.

Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Southampton

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Southampton 2-0 in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Sunday, with the Blues setting up an FA Cup final clash with Manchester United on May 19.

Antonio Conte‘s side scored twice in the second half with Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata on the scoresheet against a sorry Saints outfit.

Here’s what we learned as Chelsea have set up a tasty clash with Jose Mourinho next month.


GIROUD AN ELEGANT ASSASSIN

Olivier Giroud is quickly becoming a cult hero at Chelsea. The Frenchman dribbled delicately around three Southampton defenders and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy before prodding home to put his side ahead.

It was a elegant, yet clumsy, goal and summed up Giroud’s penchant for delivering goals of the highest difficulty.

Giroud has now been involved in 22 goals in 26 FA Cup appearances (15 goals, 7 assists), more than any other player in the completion since his debut in 2013.

The Frenchman is now pushing hard to be Chelsea’s first-choice central striker ahead of Alvaro Morata, although the Spaniard did grab a goal late on to wrap up the win.

Giroud has scored four goals in 13 appearances in all competitions since arriving from Arsenal in January but the way he holds the ball up and links with Eden Hazard is a huge plus for Conte. Giroud could also start up top with Morata if Chelsea tweak their system and at the age of 31 there is still plenty of life left in him and not just as a late sub, the role Conte earmarked for him.


COULD CONTE STAY…

Antonio Conte will likely still leave Chelsea at the end of the season but the Italian coach seems to badly want his time at Chelsea to end with a trophy.

But here’s a thought: if Chelsea beat Man United and somehow make it into the top four at Tottenham’s expense (they are five points back with four games to go), will he remain in charge for the final year of his three-year contract?

The Blues cruised into the FA Cup final and looked fired up from the start as Eden Hazard pulled the strings and Giroud made a nuisance of himself.

Conte’s comments all season long suggest he will depart Chelsea this summer and seek a new project, but if he does so after winning the FA Cup (after being runners up last season) to go along with the PL title he won last season, and then finishing fifth, that’s not a bad two years in the PL.

The Italian will depart with his pride and reputation intact even if he doesn’t defeat his old foe Mourinho in the final next month.


SOUTHAMPTON’S STRUGGLES

Saints are in the Premier League’s relegation zone for a reason and their total lack of confidence was clear for all to see at Wembley.

Mark Hughes‘ men have five games left to save themselves but it almost seems as if Saints’ players have resigned themselves to relegation from the Premier League despite sitting just four points from safety. One win in their last 21 PL games (that came against West Brom) tells the story of a side crumbling before our eyes.

After they shipped 12 goals in four Premier League, all of them defeats, Hughes has set Saints up in a 5-3-1-1 formation to try and make them tougher to break down.

It is working, at least defensively, with a 0-0 draw at Leicester on Thursday, but going forward they totally lack any cohesion and only created three real chances on Sunday as Shane Long made a hash of a great opportunity, Charlie Austin hit the post and Nathan Redmond tested Willy Caballero.

Saints are in a really bad place as they now have to find a way to stop themselves hurtling towards relegation. Their game at home against Bournemouth next weekend is a must win. Simple.

Chelsea joins Man Utd in FA Cup Final

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Chelsea will meet old pal Jose Mourinho in the FA Cup Final after beating Southampton 2-0 at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata scored the goals for Antonio Conte‘s men, whose date with Manchester United comes at the same venue on May 19.

Southampton will turn its attention back to the relegation battle, four points behind 17th place Swansea City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Willian hit the cross bar with an early effort as Chelsea looked very much up for the semifinal.

Olivier Giroud had a 39th minute chance zip wide of the frame, as Chelsea posted nine of the first half’s 11 shot attempts while holding 60 percent possession.

Saints would have been happy to get to the locker room at nil-nil.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Twenty-eight seconds into the second half: That’s when Giroud scored, with Chelsea’s first long ball knocked down by Eden Hazard on the edge of the 18 and played to the Frenchman.

Giroud cut between two Saints defenders and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to stab home with his right foot.

Hazard curled an effort of his own wide in the 48th minute.

Saints snapped to life, and Shane Long touched around Wily Caballero but too strong to equalize at Wembley.

Nathan Redmond forced a wild save out of Caballero in the 72nd minute, and nearly claimed the corner.

McCarthy tipped a Hazard shot over the bar minutes later.

Morata put it to bed on a cross from his in-tune assist man Cesar Azpilicueta.

The finish was thrilling nevertheless, with Charlie Austin hitting the far post and Saints getting a goal line clearance at the other end.

Wenger: Praise after exit announcement “more than I deserve”

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Arsene Wenger doesn’t seem like the type to go on a victory lap, but the Arsenal boss is handling his resignation and the accompanying praise with pure class.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

Wenger announced the end of his long Arsenal tenure earlier this week, and has been met by heaps of praise from ex-players, fans, current Gunners, and even rivals.

The Frenchman addressed the plaudits following a 4-1 win over West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. From the BBC:

“I would like to thank everyone who has been very nice and kind and praised me more than I deserved it. I would like to say thank you everyone. It’s been a great period for me and I’m thankful for that.”

Arsenal punished West Ham after the Irons equalized through Marko Arnautovic, getting a lucky goal from Aaron Ramsey and two fine finishes from Alexandre Lacazette in the win.

“I was focused on winning the game. We just tried to be professional and do our job even when the circumstances are different. It was a good team spirit and good preparation for Thursday.

“I think we constructed patiently. We didn’t make big mistakes. First of all before winning a trophy, you need to get through the semi-finals. This is a good way to prepare – scoring goals against a strong West Ham team who have done well recently.”

Next up: A huge test in the UEFA Europa League semifinals, with Atletico Madrid visiting for Thursday’s first leg. Wenger rested several big names, and Atleti has just one win from its last four matches (including a Madrid Derby draw at the Bernabeu).

WATCH: Chelsea’s Giroud scores 27 seconds after halftime

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Southampton held firm against Chelsea’s challenge for 45 minutes of Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium.

Well, 45 minutes and 27 seconds.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

The first long ball of the second half saw Chelsea’s Eden Hazard leap to trap, and the Belgian played a quick ball forward to his striker.

That’s Olivier Giroud, who dribbled between two defenders and Saints goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to stab home with the outside of his right foot.