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

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  • 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.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”