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.

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham: Davies stuns Spurs late

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A valiant effort from a League One side has rewarded the minnows with a replay set to be played at Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur looked on its way towards the FA Cup sixth round on Sunday, but a late finish by Steven Davies gave Rochdale a 2-2 draw with the Premier League club at the Spotland Stadium.

[ MORE: Willian stars as Chelsea routs Hull in FA Cup ]

Harry Kane — who scored his 34th goal on the season in all competitions — converted from the penalty spot in the 88th minute, however, Davies had the final say deep into stoppage time to send the two sides towards a replay.

Ian Henderson’s finish in the 45th minute gave Rochdale a gift at the conclusion of the first stanza, after the hosts capitalized on a Spurs giveaway near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tottenham managed to level the match at 1-1 on the hour mark when Lucas Moura calmly slotted his close-range shot past goalkeeper Josh Lillis after a timely through ball from Moussa Sissoko picked out the former PSG man.

The visitors began pressing on in the second half, with Mauricio Pochettino‘s side having trailed at the halftime break.

The two sides will now meet on either Feb. 27 or 28 in the reverse fixture to decide which team advances. The winner will either meet Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea City in the quarterfinals.

Scholes: Pogba didn’t earn Man United spot in 2012 before Juve stint

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Paul Pogba‘s young career has been bright, but a former Manchester United legend suggests that there was a time where the Frenchman struggled to find his way at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Man United draws Brighton, Chelsea gets Leicester in FA Cup quarters

The 24-year-old Pogba is now in his second stint with the Red Devils, after spending four seasons in Italy with giants Juventus.

Former United midfielder Paul Scholes says though that back in 2012 — prior to Pogba’s move to Juve — that the physical player wasn’t pleased with the fact that he wasn’t getting regular minutes with the first team.

“Ferguson wanted me initially to come back and coach the reserve team with Warren Joyce,” he told BT Sport. “I said in September I’d come back. So I started helping Joycey, and I was training with the reserves.

“I was training every day with the likes of Pogba, Lingard, all these types of players. They were a really good side and I was really enjoying training. I was getting fit, I felt great, and it got to December time and the team was struggling a bit.

“They had a load of injuries, no central midfield players were fit. They ended up playing Phil Jones and Fabio da Silva in central midfield in a game against Blackburn at Old Trafford.

“Funnily enough that was the end of Pogba, because he thought he should have been playing instead of them. But he wasn’t doing well enough.”

Scholes, who had retired briefly in 2011, came back after just six months for the Red Devils, and ended up playing a year-and-a-half more following the decision to end his playing career.

It is widely believed that Pogba’s decision to head to Juventus was largely due to the impact of Scholes in the United squad.

Video: Rochdale puts Tottenham on upset alert at the half

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It’s been a tremendous season for Ian Henderson, particularly in the FA Cup, and now he and his side are one half away from upsetting one of the Premier League giants.

Henderson’s finish on the brink of halftime has put League One side Rochdale up 1-0 against Tottenham Hotspur, as the minnows aim to become the first non-PL side to advance to the quarterfinals in this season’s tournament.

A sloppy giveaway from Spurs near midfield created the attack for the hosts, and allowed Rochdale to capitalize on one of its few attacks during the opening stanza.

Benfica routs Boavista 4-0 to take lead in Portugal

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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Benfica routed Boavista 4-0 to move ahead of FC Porto at the top of the Portuguese league on Saturday.

Benfica is one point in front of Porto, which has two games to play.

[ MORE: Man United gets Brighton in FA Cup quarters, Chelsea draws Leicester ]

Ruben Dias opened the scoring for Benfica in the 18th minute when he headed in a pass from Jardel.

Jardel added a goal just before halftime. Boavista’s Nuno Henrique also scored an own goal before Raul Jimenez polished off the victory in the 90th.

Jonas had a penalty saved by Boavista goalkeeper Vagner with the score 0-0.

Porto hosts Rio Ave on Sunday. Sporting Lisbon is three points behind Benfica before visiting Tondela on Monday.