Houston Dynamo

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.

West Ham United 2-1 Liverpool: Ogbonna strikes after 120 minutes

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Jordon Ibe of Liverpool takes on Pedro Mba Obiang of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Angelo Ogbonna is now an FA Cup hero.

Two sides willing to move the ball and attack produced a fine FA Cup tie on Tuesday at the Boleyn Ground, with Ogbonna heading home the match-winner in the 121st minute of play for a 2-1 win.

Michail Antonio scored a first-half goal for West Ham before Philippe Coutinho equalized for the visiting Reds.

[ WATCH: Coutinho’s cheeky free kick ties the score ]

All told, West Ham heads to Ewood Park for a fifth-round date with Blackburn Rovers. Peterborough United hosts West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday to sort out the fourth round’s other replay.

Liverpool played a more second-string set than the home side.

Brilliance met brilliance in the 38th minute, as Dimitri Payet struck a gorgeous dipping free kick over the wall only to see Mignolet get the slightest touch to help the ball crank off the goal post. Cheikhou Kouyate failed to scissor kick the rebound, and Mignolet flew back into the picture to parry Antonio’s header.

Antonio would get his glory next, as Enner Valencia took Payet’s pass and dribbled through the left side of the 18 and toward the end line before crossing the ball. Antonio let the ball sink to hip height before volleying home. 1-0, 45′.

There were three goal posts struck in the first half.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

[ MORE: Recapping Week 25 in the PL ]

Coutinho scored on a clever free kick from the edge of the 18, betting on the wall jumping and cheekily rolling his shot under it and past Hammers keeper Darren Randolph.

Christian Benteke started and nearly finished a 56th minute chance inside the box, but his shot was blocked.

West Ham should’ve been awarded a penalty when Tiago Ilori pulled down Valencia in the box. Roger East didn’t see it that way.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or UEFA Champions League final a must ]

The match went to extra time after eight minutes of second-half stoppage time.

Mignolet made a solid flying stop on Mark Noble in the first frame of extra time. At the other end, Benteke struck a low chance wide of the right post. Moments later, Randolph came out to thwart Benteke on a breakaway.

If anyone needed a reminder of Daniel Sturridge‘s skill, the late sub let fly with a 108th minute bullet that missed the goal by inches.

Then Lucas Leiva gave up a free kick just as two minutes of extra time stoppage began, and Ogbonna struck.

LINEUPS

West Ham United: Randolph, O’Brien (Moses, 83′), Reid (Collins, 64′), Ogbonna, Cresswell, Kouyate (Carroll, 76′), Noble, Obiang, Antonio, Valencia, Payet.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Flanagan, Stewart, Tiago Ilori, Smith, Teixeira (Origi, 60′), Lucas, Chirivella (Milner, 102′), Ibe, Benteke, Coutinho (Sturridge, 60′).

WATCH: Liverpool’s Coutinho bewitches West Ham with cheeky free kick

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09: Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool scores from a free-kick during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Philippe Coutinho has some gumption.

Liverpool’s Brazilian wizard tied things up with West Ham United in Tuesday’s FA Cup replay at the Boleyn Ground, and did it in style.

[ MORE: Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must ]

With a free kick from just outside the 18, Coutinho thought West Ham would expect he’d hit a ball that would get up quick before dipping after the wall.

They’d jump, he figured, and he’d roll it under the wall. He was correct (video courtesy Fox Soccer):

USWNT’s Solo says Zika fears could make her skip the Olympics

Hope Solo attends the premiere of "He Named Me Malala" at The Ziegfeld Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
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As it stands, Hope Solo would skip the Olympics if fears over the Zika virus don’t subside in Brazil.

It’s been speculated that Zika increases the odds of certain birth defects, and Solo said playing in the Olympics is not worth risking future pregnancies.

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With CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying heading to NBC Live Extra at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday against Costa Rica (All games of the tournament will be streamed on Live Extra), Solo is set to star between the sticks for the USWNT.

But in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, the 34-year-old netminder is far from ready to commit to the tournament.

She went as far as to say she wouldn’t go if the tournament was today, elaborating in this story from SI.com:

“I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child,” said Solo, 34. “I don’t know when that day will come for Jerramy and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby. No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma. Female professional athletes already face many different considerations and have to make choices that male professional athletes don’t.”

Brazilian officials claim there will be minimal risk by the Summer Games because of the change in season, but that won’t alleviate all the concerns of female athletes. It will certainly be interesting to monitor how the situation develops in the coming months.

Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must

Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea FC
Brian Westerholt/AP Images for International Champions Cup
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Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is used to big matches, whether at Stamford Bridge, with the Belgian national team or during his loan to Atletico Madrid.

[ SPORTSWORLD: Courtois “standing tall” at Chelsea ]

If he doesn’t get one or two of those contests by the end of this season, a bad season will become an utter failure.

Courtois says it’s a long way to the Top Four, but Chelsea hasn’t given up on that hope. Regardless, he’s targeting wins over Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, respectively.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“After that we play in the Champions League and FA Cup against two great sides and we have to try to win those games because the only way to save our season is to reach the final in one or both of them.”

Chelsea’s star has fallen this year, but this is still largely the team that won the Premier League last season. Courtois’ goals are not unreasonable.