MLS Season Preview: Houston Dynamo

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Off of two straight MLS Cup appearances, Houston entered the 2013 season as one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference, but after injuries, absences, and a midseason scoring drought pushed them into another four-five game, Dominic Kinnear’s team succumbed one-step short of third-straight final. Though they saw Montréal and the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls out of the playoffs, the Dynamo was unable to continue their mastery of Sporting Kansas City, falling to the eventual MLS champions in the conference finals.

While that slight regression would suggest a wane, Houston’s core remains strong, with only veteran center back Bobby Boswell having departed from the starting lineup that was in place at the end of 2013. While that team was only good enough to finish fourth in the East, it did so while Davis seemed constantly away with the U.S. national team, Boniek Garcia was hampered by injuries and commitments to Honduras, and Will Bruin only found goal twice in a 15-game span in the middle of the season.

Add in Boswell’s regression (playing a significant level below his 2012 performance), and Houston never found top gear in 2013.  When New England visits BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday, however, the Dynamo have a chance to reclaim last March’s promise. While Boswell, Adam Moffat, and Calen Carr (who missed the entire 2013 season) may be gone from the team that lost to the LA Galaxy in 2012’s MLS Cup,  the Dynamo has a series of options that will help the team threaten for another conference title.

Players in: Tony Cascio (loan, Colorado), A.J. Cochran (draft), David Horst (trade, Portland), Michael Lisch (draft), Mark Sherrod (draft)

Players out: Bobby Boswell (selected by D.C. United in re-entry), Calen Carr (out of contract), Brian Ching (retired), Alex Dixon (released), Erich Marscheider, Cam Weaver (option declined)

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Key player: “Eric Horst” (the forced combination or Eric Brunner and David Horst)

Central defense is Houston’s biggest weakness. If Will Bruin returns to his 2012, 16-goal self, it will be the team’s only weakness, with the departure of Boswell leaving Jamaican international Jermaine Taylor to anchor the back line with either David Horst or Eric Brunner. Two Portland Timber cast-offs trying to find new life in Houston? It’s not exactly a formula that’s going to produce the next Matt Besler and Aurélien Collin.

Horst had a strong season for Portland in 2012, while Brunner is two years removed from his last full-time role, yet Kinnear’s gamble on the duo to produce a starter isn’t the biggest issue in defender. Whomever ends up playing along side the incumbent Taylor will be part of a pair that lacks foot speed; one that will be overly reliant on Ricardo Clark and Warren Creavalle for protection. While that midfield duo’s capable of shielding a problematic defense, the need to do so could limit Kinnear’s want to make Clark a force higher up the field.

Brad Davis (pictured) will contend for a spot on the All-Star team, and if he plays to his potential, Boniek Garcia can be the best wide midfielder in the league. But if the central defense doesn’t come together, Houston is unlikely to transcend last year’s fourth place finish. Whether it’s David Horst, Eric Brunner, or “Eric Horst,” Houston needs one of their ex-Timbers to exceed expectations for the Dynamo to meet theirs.

Manager: Kinnear is one of the elite coaches in Major League Soccer. For some, he’s the first name that comes up after Bruce Arena when talking about the league’s best – somebody who should garner U.S. Men’s National Team consideration when Jurgen Klinsmann moves on. Though not every player succeeds under Kinnear, many who have struggled elsewhere do, with the Dynamo boss having almost completely rebuilt the team that won back-to-back titles upon its move from San Jose. Only Davis, Clark, Corey Ashe and Mike Chabala remain from the 2007 champions (and only Davis and Ashe have have had non-stop runs with the team).

Outlook: Sporting Kansas City will be favored to take the East, with plenty bound to put New York and Toronto among the favorites to unseat the MLS champions. Houston, while flawed, should be in that conversation. As their 2011 and 2012 playoff runs showed, the Dynamo’s capable of producing results that exceed its talent. If Kinnear has a team that can get him to November — and with Davis, Garcia, Clark and Bruin, he does — Houston has a chance to play on the season’s final day.

Sydney FC to face Melbourne Victory in A-League final

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SYDNEY (AP) Sydney FC will face the Melbourne Victory in next weekend’s grand final of Australian football’s A-League after the top-ranked teams won contrasting semifinals.

[ MORE: Spurs revel in North London rule, but want more ]

While Sydney was as dominant as it has been throughout a 27-match regular season in its 3-0 win over Perth on Saturday, Melbourne needed a 70th-minute goal from striker Besart Berisha to advance with a 1-0 win Sunday over Brisbane.

Josh Brillante, Jordy Buijs and Filip Holosko scored first-half goals as Sydney continued a seemingly unstoppable drive towards its third A-League title – and its first since 2010. The video referee interceded in two of the goals, making the win contentious, but Sydney still demonstrated superiority over the young, confident and ambitious Perth side.

Sydney lost only once in 27 regular-season matches and will enter the final as a considerable favorite.

Berisha sank the hopes of his former club, Brisbane, with his late strike in Sunday’s second semifinal. While the margin was small, the Victory deserved to win after playing more assertively throughout the match.

Its semifinal victory means that the teams that finished first and second at the end of the regular season will contest the final for the fifth straight year. The final repeats the 2015 showdown between Sydney and Melbourne, which the Victory won 3-0.

Hoffenheim reaches Champions League qualifiers for 1st time

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BERLIN (AP) The youngest coach in the Bundesliga, 29-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, has steered Hoffenheim to a place in the Champions League qualifiers in the club’s best ever season.

Hoffenheim could even secure its first appearance in the Champions League group stage if it holds on to third place – where it now stands after Benjamin Huebner scored in the last minute to snatch a 1-0 home win over Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday. It has three more matches to play this season.

Huebner’s late goal, a powerful header to Sebastian Rudy’s corner, moved the side one point above Borussia Dortmund, which was held to a scoreless draw at home by Cologne on Saturday.

The goal was scored by the son of Frankfurt sporting director Bruno Huebner.

“A lucky win,” acknowledged Hoffenheim backer Dietmar Hopp, the software billionaire whose finances helped his hometown club progress from minor leagues to the Bundesliga.

A co-founder of the SAP software giant, Hopp became the first private owner of a Bundesliga side when he took a majority stake in Hoffenheim in 2015. By then he had already spent an estimated 350 million euros on the team.

However, Hoffenheim’s best appointment to date appears to be that of Nagelsmann, who took over in February 2016 after Huub Stevens stepped down for health reasons.

Then 28, Nagelsmann hadn’t even earned his coaching credentials from the German football federation (DFB). But he saved the side from relegation and Hoffenheim is enjoying its best ever season this year.

The win over Frankfurt extended its unbeaten run at home to 16 games and ensured it beat its previous best-mark of 55 points from the 2008-09 season.

As a player, Nagelsmann lined up for Bavarian sides Augsburg and 1860 Munich before turning his attention to coaching. He spent almost a decade coaching the youth sides of 1860 Munich and then Hoffenheim, for which he was also assistant coach in 2012-13.

Earlier this year, Nagelsmann was named the German football federation’s coach of the year for 2016.

Dortmund hosts Hoffenheim next weekend for a game that is likely to decide which side goes into the qualifiers and which secures automatic qualification for the Champions League.

AUGSBURG 4, HAMBURGER SV 0

Hamburger SV slipped closer to its first ever relegation in a humiliating defeat at fellow struggler Augsburg.

Hamburg, the last founding member of the league to have played every season since its formation in 1963, was left in the relegation playoff place with three games remaining.

“We’re all affected by the performance we showed today,” Hamburg coach Markus Gisdol said. “We were hoping for something different. But we’ve got over other setbacks before and have to deliver the best in the next game.”

Hamburg goalkeeper Tom Mickel and the left post denied Augsburg early on before Halil Altintop fired the home side ahead, midway through the first half.

Altintop scored another before the break, set up by Philipp Max, to give Augsburg some breathing space.

Michael Gregoritsch reacted with a brutal challenge on Dominik Kohr, for which the Hamburg midfielder was fortunate to escape with a yellow card.

Max sealed the result on a counterattack before setting up Raul Bobadilla to complete the scoring late on.

“We could even have scored more goals,” Augsburg coach Manuel Baum said. “But more than three points wouldn’t have been possible.”

Victory lifted Augsburg out of the relegation playoff place and two points above Hamburg, Wolfsburg and Mainz, all level on 33 points. Hamburg, which has conceded a league-worst 59 goals in 31 games, has an inferior goal difference to the other two.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt occupied the automatic relegation spots. Ingolstadt was four points behind Hamburg, while Darmstadt was all but doomed, nine points behind.

Balotelli, Nice may have spoiled PSG’s title chances

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Monaco took care of business at the top of Ligue 1 on Saturday and now the Champions League semifinalists could be closing in on France’s crown.

[ MORE: Spurs revel in ruling North London, but want more ]

Paris Saint-Germain slipped up on Sunday with a 3-1 loss against third-place Nice, and it could spell the end for the Parisians’ hopes of winning Ligue 1 in 2016/17.

Mario Balotelli sprung Nice in front after 26 minutes with a curling left-footed effort from outside the box, before Ricardo Pereira doubled the advantage for the hosts just three minutes into the second stanza with a lovely curler of his own.

PSG managed to pull a goal back in the 64th minute as Marquinhos gave the visitors a glimmer of hope to keep their title hopes alive.

However, the final minutes of the match took a drastic turn for the worse for PSG as Thiago Motta and Angel di Maria were both shown red cards for violent tackles on Nice players.

Nice also found a third finish after PSG was dwindled down to nine men when Anastasios Donis headed home a lofted cross from the left wing.

With three matches remaining for PSG, Unai Emery’s side sits three points behind league leaders Monaco, who also have a match in hand. PSG finishes up their Ligue 1 account with matches against Bastia, St Etienne and Caen.

Video: Camilo Sanvezzo scores wonder goal for Queretaro

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Camilo Sanvezzo scored two goals on Sunday for Queretaro but many won’t even remember the score of the game after his brilliant first effort.

The Queretaro forward scored the first of two finishes in the 66th minute after winning the ball in his own half, carrying it into the Toluca end and unleashing a deadly shot from just inside midfield.

Sanvezzo eventually scored his side’s second goal in the dying minutes of the match, and his 88th minute finish proved to be the winner for Queretaro, who currently sit 13th in Liga MX.

The 28-year-old should be familiar to MLS fans after Sanvezzo’s time with the Vancouver Whitecaps from 2011 to 2013. The veteran scored 39 goals in 92 matches with the Canadian side.