MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at Sporting Kansas City, a place in MLS Cup at stake

12 Comments
  • 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and Univision Deportes
  • Kickoff temperatures will be in the 20s
  • The first leg of this aggregate goals series finished in a 0-0 draw
  • Saturday’s survivor earns a spot in MLS Cup 2013; Kansas City would host the league championship it advances
  • Houston has eliminated Sporting KC from the last two playoffs

(Originally posted Friday afternoon)

If it seems like we’ve been here before – Houston visiting Sporting Kansas City in a huge, tense MLS playoff encounter – it’s because we have. Players and coaches from Houston will be drawing on the fond memories, in fact of recent, previous post-season face-offs between these two.

Sporting Kansas City types … not so much.

It’s hard to escape the history factor in this series, so fresh of memory and so meaningful. This is where Sporting KC’s seasons died in 2011 and 2012, in high-stakes matches at Sporting Park on the Midwest city’s outskirts.

It’s all on the line once again on Saturday as Houston visits Kansas City in the second leg of the teams’ aggregate goals Eastern Conference final series. The first leg finished 0-0, which makes it “Advantage KC” for the back half of this one. (If does if you can avoid considering all that recent history, that is, a backdrop that makes things lean a bit more Houston’s way.)

A spot in MLS Cup 2011 was on the line two years ago when the teams met at what was then called Livestrong Sporting Park. Houston’s Andre Hainault and Carlo Costly (neither of whom remain with the club) scored in a game also remembered for an injury to Brad Davis, which took the Dynamo’s best attacker out of the subsequent league final. But Houston advanced that day to meet the L.A. Galaxy, leaving Kansas City and its relentless, pressing ways to wonder about what had gone wrong in a 2-0 loss at home.

(MORE: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of tonight’s match)

A year later, the teams met again in the same park, this time in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a two-leg aggregate set, just like this year’s. Kansas City needed a two-goal win to even the series that night; the Dynamo had prevailed by a 2-0 margin in the opening leg. This one looked quite different, with Kansas City completely dominating (a 20-3 advantage in shots provides a fair, accurate snapshot) but doing no better than a 1-0 win. That left Kansas City eliminated (2-1 on aggregate) and put Houston on a path to a second consecutive MLS Cup appearance.

Kansas City has the look of a team that could play for the championship, a tough-minded, tactically wise bunch that also happens to be the league’s top defensive side. In fact, those loses convinced KC manager Peter Vermes to re-think his team’s commitment to all-out, high-pressure soccer. Now his teams play with just a little more possession and press high more selectively.

Still, at some point those sharp edges of recent history surely must work on some minds around the Kansas City locker room. “The great thing for us,” Vermes said late this week, “is that we don’t have a deficit to overcome, which was the case a year ago.”

(MORE: Notes on the Houston Dynamo ahead of tonight’s match)

The weather will have a fall playoff feel; high tomorrow in Kansas City is expected to be in the low 30s, with temperatures by game time falling perhaps into the upper 20s. The night should be dry, at least.

The other oddity about this one is the big break involved. Both teams had been quite busy in the run-up to the uneventful 0-0 draw in Houston – but there has been almost two full weeks since that one. So the teams will be better rested, at least. Both were cautious or tired or both to open the series, and the result was a contest where the teams evenly divided a total of just six shots on target. It was hardly an advertisement for open, attractive, flowing soccer.

With plenty of time to restore the legs and lungs, not to mention the cold temperatures that will help players stay on the move, Saturday’s match inside a sold out building should have more energy about it. It will, that is, unless the break makes things weird.

“There’s been a lot of time to think about this one,” Vermes said. “We want to play! It’s not easy to navigate the two weeks leading up to this game, keeping the guys sharp.”

The contest certainly has enough star power, with Kansas City center back Matt Besler and playmaker Graham Zusi set to lead the home team. Both were excused from U.S. national team duty over the past week and a half to ensure readiness for this one.

Injuries (well, one in particular) will be a huge influence in how this one plays out; Dynamo do-all midfielder Ricardo Clark remains questionable. This side of U.S. midfielder Brad Davis or perhaps goalkeeper Tally Hall, there is no more important Houston figure.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Leave a comment

TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

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:

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.