Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Houston Dynamo

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

For a team that finished in the middle of their conference last season, the Houston Dynamo carry surprisingly few questions into their 2013 campaign.

That’s because they’re not a fifth-place caliber team. Two years in a row, Dominic Kinnear has guided his team to an MLS Cup final, and while Sporting has claimed two conference titles in that time, there’s little doubt which team are currently kings in the East.

Bringing back the same core that clicked during last year’s playoffs, Houston should be expected to better their 2012 regular season finish. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some doubt.

  • Is the defense for real?

Houston lost Geoff Cameron and didn’t miss a beat. They made a change at right back mid-stream and never lost their edge. As with most Kinnear teams, Houston’s defense served as the bedrock for the coach’s approach.

That’s no guarantee everything will unfold the same this spring. Bobby Boswell may have has his best MLS season in 2012. Will that continue into 2013? Will Jermaine Taylor resume the same high level he carried through his time in Cameron’s spot? And how will Kofie Sarkodie respond to his first March as Houston’s first choice right back?

Expect all those questions to come back positive. At not point during last year’s run did the you watch this back four and think “this has to be a fluke.” But sample sizes being what they are, it’s worth watching to make sure our initial perceptions coincide with the long-term reality. Preseason will give us our first hints.

  • Can Rico play a more attacking part?

Ricardo Clark’s return from Germany allowed Kinnear to switch from the 4-4-3 he used through summer to his preferred 4-4-2. With Clark and Adam Moffat in the middle, the Dynamo had a tandem that could both destroy play and clean up the second balls.

This year, however, Ricardo Clark may need to expand his game. Both he and Dominic Kinnear had hoped he’d play a more attacking role when he came into the starting XI, but his presence rarely translated into something going forward.

Conceivably, Houston could be fine if Clark plays the same way he did down the stretch in 2013, but the Dynamo would be much more balanced (and ultimately, dangerous) if they didn’t have to rely solely on Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia. Preseason’s the perfect time for Clark to start taking some chances.

  • How does Houston reach the next level?

Making finals is nice and losing to the Galaxy is understandable, but at some point it’s going to get old. And there’s always going to be a talented team at the end of any championship road.

If Houston’s going to reclaim an MLS crowd, they need something else. Perhaps that’s Clark finding some creativity. Maybe it’s Will Bruin becoming an All-Star. Boniek Garcia may become one of the league’s elite players. Perhaps Tally Hall becomes MLS’s Petr Cech. If so, we may start to see it in preseason.

Any of these things may prove enough to give Houston that one missing quality they need to win (instead of merely compete in) their last game.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: LA Galaxy

La Liga: Real Madrid shocked by Mallorca; Messi, Suarez, Griezmann send Barca top

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased for Pulisic,” praises subs in Chelsea win ]

Eibar 0-3 Barcelona

Lionel Messi goal – check; Luis Suarez goal – check; Antoine Griezmann goal – check; clean sheet – check. If there exists a perfect recipe for a Barcelona victory this season, the Blaugrana put it to good use en route to a fourth straight La Liga victory and top spot in the league table on Saturday.

Griezmann opened the scoring in the 13th minute, followed by Messi in the 58th and Suarez in the 66th. Marc-Andre ter Stegen didn’t have to make a single save as Eibar managed just five shots in the game.

Mallorca 1-0 Real Madrid

Real Madrid’s unbeaten start to the season was snapped at eight games on Saturday, when Los Blancos went to Mallorca and suffered a hugely underwhelming 1-0 defeat. Zinedine Zidane’s side — already without the likes of Gareth Bale (calf), Luka Modric (bruise), Toni Kroos (adductor) and Marco Ascensio (knee), among others — finished the game with 10 men after Alvaro Odriozola earned his second yellow card in the 74th minute. The defeat sees Madrid fall off the top spot, now sitting second behind Barca.

Lago Junior scored the game’s only goal in the 7th minute and Mallorca held on for 83 more, allowing just four shots on target (12 in total). The early goal was Mallorca’s only shot on target over 90 minutes.

Atletico Madrid 1-1 Valencia

Atleti coughed up a late lead and settled for a 1-1 draw with Valencia, but the worst news of the day comes in the form of an injury suffered by Joao Felix. The 19-year-old’s ankle buckled underneath him late in the second half. Atleti finished with 10 men after their $140-million superstar was forced off.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Getafe 2-0 Leganes

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Alaves v. Celta Vigo — 6 a.m. ET
Real Sociedad v. Real Betis — 8 a.m. ET
Espanyol v. Villarreal — 10 a.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao v. Real Valladolid — 12:30 p.m. ET
Sevilla v. Levante — 3 p.m. ET

Haringey Borough abandon FA Cup qualifier after racist abuse

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LONDON (AP) An FA Cup qualifier between Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town was abandoned Saturday when the home team walked off the field after one of its players was racially abused.

[ MORE: Analyzing a day of VAR drama in the Premier League ]

Haringey, a London-based non-league club, walked off in the 64th minute after claims its Cameroonian goalkeeper Valery Pajetat had been targeted by racial abuse by visiting fans minutes earlier, when Yeovil took a 1-0 lead from a penalty.

Haringey manager Tom Loizou told BBC Radio 5 Live that defender Coby Rowe was also racially abused, and that “there was no way I could let him continue.”

The match at Coles Park Stadium was in the fourth qualifying round for the FA Cup, with the winner advancing to the first round of the tournament.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased for Pulisic,” praises subs in Chelsea win ]

“The abuse a few of my players got was disgusting,” Loizou said. “Yeovil’s players and manager were different class. Their team tried to calm their supporters down, they tried their best and they supported us. They said, ‘If you’re walking off, we’re walking off with you.’ I took the decision to take my team off and I don’t want Yeovil Town to get punished for it. If we get thrown out of the FA Cup and they go through, there is no hard feelings there.”

The incident comes four days after England’s European Championship qualifier in Bulgaria was stopped twice in the first half as home fans hurled racial abuse at England’s black players. However, England decided to play on and won 6-0.

In a statement on Twitter, the football anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out praised the “swift and decisive action” taken by the Haringey manager Tom Loizou and his players.

Bundesliga wrap: Dortmund beats leaders Gladbach; Bayern draws

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Another Saturday in the Bundesliga, another nutty set of results allowing a side the chance to claim the top of the league on Sunday.

David Wagner, Weston McKennie and Schalke are the ones licking their lips this time, knowing that a win at Hoffenheim will boost them into first.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased” for Pulisic ]

Wolfsburg remains unbeaten with a draw, and dropped points for Borussia Monchengladbach, RB Leipzig, and Bayern Munich means an absurd nine teams are within two points of the top of the table.

Nine!

Borussia Dortmund 1-0 Borussia Monchengladbach

Gladbach’s stay atop the league could last just one match day, as Thorgan Hazard set up Marco Reus for a 58th minute goal and a place one point back of the top.

Werder Bremen 1-1 Hertha Berlin

Josh Sargent’s 7th minute goal didn’t stand up, thanks to Hertha’s electric Dodi Lukebakio scoring with 20 minutes to play. Watch the American striker’s goal, here.

Augsburg 2-2 Bayern Munich

The champions’ stumbles continued, with first minute concession providing a test. Bayern’s red hot pair delivered a lead, with Robert Lewandowski answering in the 14th minute, and Serge Gnabry supplying a 49th minute lead.

Stoppage time was the downfall, though, as Alfred Finnbogason helped himself to the equalizer with all kinds of questions for the Bayern defense.

Elsewhere

Eintracht Frankfurt 3-0 Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Union Berlin 2-0 Freiburg
Fortuna Dusseldorf 1-0 Mainz
RB Leipzig 1-1 Wolfsburg
Koln v. Paderborn — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Hoffenheim v. Schalke — Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Mönchengladbach 8 5 1 2 15 7 8 2-1-1 3-0-1 16
 VfL Wolfsburg 8 4 4 0 11 5 6 2-2-0 2-2-0 16
 Bayern Munich 8 4 3 1 22 10 12 2-1-1 2-2-0 15
 Borussia Dortmund 8 4 3 1 20 11 9 3-1-0 1-2-1 15
 RB Leipzig 8 4 3 1 16 8 8 1-2-1 3-1-0 15
 FC Schalke 04 7 4 2 1 14 7 7 2-1-1 2-1-0 14
 SC Freiburg 8 4 2 2 15 9 6 1-2-1 3-0-1 14
 Eintracht Frankfurt 8 4 2 2 14 10 4 3-2-0 1-0-2 14
 Bayer Leverkusen 8 4 2 2 12 11 1 2-2-0 2-0-2 14
 Hertha BSC Berlin 8 3 2 3 13 13 0 2-0-1 1-2-2 11
 Werder Bremen 8 2 3 3 13 17 -4 1-1-2 1-2-1 9
 1899 Hoffenheim 7 2 2 3 6 11 -5 1-0-2 1-2-1 8
 Fortuna Düsseldorf 8 2 1 5 10 14 -4 1-1-2 1-0-3 7
 1. FC Union Berlin 8 2 1 5 8 13 -5 2-0-3 0-1-2 7
 FC Augsburg 8 1 3 4 10 21 -11 1-2-1 0-1-3 6
 FSV Mainz 05 8 2 0 6 7 18 -11 1-0-2 1-0-4 6
 1. FC Köln 7 1 1 5 5 16 -11 0-0-3 1-1-2 4
 SC Paderborn 7 0 1 6 9 19 -10 0-0-4 0-1-2 1

Brilliant Barco assist helps Atlanta outlast New England

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The game in 200 words (or less): Highly-favored at home, the reigning champions needed their goalkeeper to keep them alive against a New England Revolution side that only made the postseason via MLS’ decision to let almost everyone make it. Yes, Atlanta United dodged a bullet as Brad Guzan made six saves and Ezequiel Barco’s slick pass set up Franco Escobar for a brilliant winner with about 20 minutes to play. New England fought to the very death, but couldn’t take advantage of the absence of Miles Robinson.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased” for Pulisic ]

Soon-to-retire Michael Parkhurst appeared to dislocate his shoulder late in a challenge with Cristian Penilla, and needed a lot of help to get off the field. Hopefully that wasn’t the last we see of him.

Atlanta will host either Philadelphia or the New York Red Bulls on Thursday evening.

Three things we learned

1. Guzan overcomes blip to stand tall: The longtime USMNT backup made a major error and nearly allowed New England in front but was otherwise sensational over 90 minutes in Georgia.

2. Martinez off, and Martinez off: While Frank De Boer opted to keep Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez out of the Starting XI, it was his star striker who nearly made him pay for the decision. Josef Martinez was not on his game, and lashed a should-be winner from his office over the goal in the first half before being stopped on by Turner on a 1v1 as the match neared stoppage time.

3. Barco makes the difference: Who knows if the 20-year-old Argentine will ever fully deliver on his promise, but the plays he made to set up Escobar’s goal was sensational. After dancing around a pair of defenders, he cut a shot pass between two defenders for the on-running Escobar to blast past Matt Turner.

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Man of the match: Barco

Goalscorers: Escobar (70′)