MLS Playoff Preview: New York Red Bulls at Houston Dynamo

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  • Kickoff from BBVA Compass Stadium in downtown Houston is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC:
  • New York won all three meetings between these teams in 2013, including two in Houston
  • The Dynamo prevailed over Montreal (3-0) in midweek to get here
  • Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear is suspended
  • The Red Bulls avoided that mid-week elimination match by finished atop the East, and claiming Supporters Shield (for the MLS team with the best regular season record)

The New York Red Bulls may have mastered Houston in the regular season this year, and curiously so. But Dominic Kinnear’s Dynamo are masters of the MLS playoffs – so both teams have reason to like their chances as this intriguing home-and-away series gets going.

Sunday’s first leg of the totals goals series plays out at two-year-old BBVA Compass Stadium in the shadow of downtown Houston.

What makes this meeting so interesting (beyond the old argument of extra rest vs. added momentum – which we’ll get to) is this clear and somewhat contrasting edge for each team.

From New York’s side, winning all three regular season meetings of 2013 certainly must make Thierry Henry and Co. feel good about things. Mike Petke’s team downed the Dynamo in New Jersey back in June, 2-0. And funny thing, that was the least impressive among a trio of showy results. Next came a 4-1 thumping in September at BBVA Compass Stadium. And then, just two weeks ago, New York put yet another three-goal beat down on Dominic Kinnear’s proud team, once against at BBVA Compass Stadium.

That match was a strange one, where the score didn’t accurately reflect the actual match. (Also strange because it featured the fastest goal in MLS history, Tim Cahill’s opener just seven seconds after the kickoff.)

Teams just don’t bear the Orange by three goals at home, right? Only, New York did it twice this year.

“I’m sure people are going to talk about how we beat them the two times we went to their place, but this is a playoff game,” Henry said this week. “It’s totally different. I’ve got a lot of respect for them because they know how to do it in the playoffs. We still don’t know how to do it in the playoffs.”

And there’s the rub. The Red Bulls and “playoff success” have generally been oil and water through the years. (If you’re into signs and such, the only time New York did reach deep into the MLS playoffs, its path sped through Houston; a shocking 3-0 New York victory at the Dynamo’s old home on the University of Houston campus propelled the Red Bulls into a 2008 MLS Cup appearance.)

But Houston knows how to get it done in the post-season. It’s been that way since the team moved from San Jose back in 2006 – and promptly won MLS Cup in its first two seasons in Texas.

Under Houston manager Dominic Kinnear, the club is 14-7-3 in the post-season since moving to Houston. (Two of those losses were to David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane in the last two MLS Cup finals, with both matches happening inside the LA Galaxy’s home ground.)

Red Bulls manager Mike Petke, by contrast, will stand on the sidelines as head coach for his first MLS playoff contest.

(MORE: ProSoccerTalk’s MLS playoffs picks and predictions)

Further, Houston is 9-1 in playoff games at home since moving to Texas. If Houston can keep that party going, they could seize quick control of this total goals series, sending it back to Red Bull Arena with all the pressure on a team with no history of playoff success.

That doesn’t mean New York’s players don’t have a bunch of useful big game experience. Thierry Henry (10 goals, 9 assists for RBNY this year) helped France win a World Cup and a European Championship, never mind all those huge matches at old Highbury with Arsenal. Tim Cahill (11 goals) has played in a World Cup, never mind a lot of critical matches at Goodison Park with Everton.

Big center back Jamison Olave started for Real Salt Lake back in 2009, helping his team upset Beckham and the Galaxy to claim the league crown.

Plus, New York is rested, having all week to train while Houston dealt with that mid-week elimination match. While Houston had a relatively easy time with Montreal (a team that was faded and broken and put up little resistance, if we’re honest), the Dynamo also saw its manager “eliminated” from this first leg.

(MORE: MLS suspends Kinnear from playoff match)

Major League Soccer suspended Kinnear for leaving his technical area during the match.

While Houston made easy work of Montreal, important midfielders Brad Davis and Ricardo Clark, both in their early 30s, went deep into the match. Davis came off after 83 minutes; Clark played all 90 minutes.

(MORE: Previewing Sporting KC at New England)

Report: Earnie Stewart in negotiations for U.S. Soccer GM job

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Philadelphia Union sporting director and USMNT centurion Earnie Stewart is reportedly in negotiations to become the United States men’s national team general manager.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The report, from Metro NY reporter Kristian Dyer, says the Netherlands-born executive has the proverbial ball in his court.

Stewart, 49, racked up 103 caps and 18 goals for the Yanks and had a glittering playing career spent between Willem II, NAC Breda, and DC United.

He later had high-ranking positions with NAC Breda and AZ Alkmaar.

Here’s Dyer, quoting a source:

The source, speaking to Metro on the condition of anonymity, said that Stewart is believed to be the frontrunner and is in negotiations for the position following an impressive showing during the interview process.

The club, when asked for a comment, told Metro that “Since Earnie’s first interview with U.S. Soccer, we have respected their process, and as such, we will decline further comment until a final decision has been made.”

Stewart scored against Colombia in the 1994 World Cup and added markers in qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 tournaments.

His familiarity with both MLS and European leagues would be a boon for the U.S., and Stewart’s Union has brought along a number of promising young players including Auston Trusty and Keegan Rosenberry (the latter drafted out of Georgetown).

Carrick: Haven’t entertained possibility of Pogba leaving Man Utd

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Michael Carrick is hammering the idea of a Paul Pogba exit from Manchester United.

Pogba’s had his problems with manager Jose Mourinho, but recently praised the boss for the season’s education.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

But is an exit is just not going to happen, says Carrick as he heads toward a coaching role at Old Trafford.

From Sky Sports:

“Of course he’s got a future, he’s a big player for us, he’s a great age, he’s got his peak years ahead of him. It’s not even something I’d give a second thought to, to be honest.”

The retired midfielder also said he’s looking forward to working under Jose Mourinho, whom he calls “the best man to learn from.”

He also said United’s trophy-less season wasn’t ideal, but it’s more about them their competition.

“We’re not looking at City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, anyone. We’re looking at ourselves to improve, we believe we’re capable of improving a lot and we’ll see where that takes us.”

Three key battles for Champions League Final

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Saturday brings Real Madrid’s journey toward a third-straight UEFA Champions League title to a close, with just Liverpool standing in the way.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The Reds attack promises danger and entertainment, while Zinedine Zidane’s personnel choice may be just as important as his tactical decisions in Kiev.

Van Dijk, Lovren against… Ronaldo and whoever Zidane decides

It’s difficult to highlight the match-up problems for Liverpool’s center backs because Zinedine Zidane has used three different set-ups atop his line-up.

At times, it’s been Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Sometimes, Gareth Bale takes Benzema’s spot, and occasionally Ronaldo has been played up top as a center forward.

Believe it or not, that may be the best case scenario for Liverpool, though Ronaldo will undoubtedly roam across the top of the formation. While many think of Ronaldo and visualize his laser shots from distance, he’s quite dangerous in 1v1 aerial battles as well as tight spaces inside the box.

Quite frankly, matches like this highlight why the Reds signed Virgil Van Dijk. And, opinion alert, human bowling ball Benzema and his Juggernaut-esque approach to attacking may be a unique challenge Liverpool has not seen outside of Romelu Lukaku.

Marcelo vs. Mohamed Salah

Marcelo is an unbelievably silky, savvy left back who uses an elite attacking skill set to keep the opposition’s entire right side off kilter.

In some ways he can be partially neutralized by the danger presented by Reds right wing Mo Salah, but Zidane isn’t going to tell Marcelo to camp out in his own end when left center back Sergio Ramos is the next man up to defend, one of the finest players of his generation.

So it’s on Salah to assert himself on the game, something that shouldn’t be a problem after a couple weeks away from match action.

Can Real defend Liverpool on the counter?

We’ve seen Liverpool expose a number of teams on the counter attack, and Real certainly has a handle on how to do the same.

But building on our second key, there’s danger for both sides when Marcelo or Dani Carvajal get up the pitch. When Liverpool regains the ball and attacks at pace, there are big choices to be made.

Say Marcelo is up the pitch. Now Ramos may have to take Salah and leave Roberto Firmino to Raphael Varane. Now Carvajal may be alone with Sadio Mane. It’s not that Carvajal or Marcelo cannot defend, but these are not situations anyone wants in a one-off.

And that’s the key for Liverpool, really. This is a one-off. Over two legs, it’s hard to imagine the Reds as constructed pulling off another heavily-outchanced two-leg win like it did against Manchester City. The answer to this counter question may be what tells the story in Kiev.

Ancelotti hired to end Napoli’s scudetto drought

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Is Carlo Ancelotti the right man to end Juventus’ seemingly ages-old hold on the scudetto?

Napoli hopes so, and has inked the former Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Bayern Munich boss to a three-year deal.

Ancelotti’s resume speaks for itself, and the hiring promises more Serie A drama after the Neapolitan club nearly got the job done this season under Maurizio Sarri.

[ MORE: Top takeaways from Emery’s Arsenal unveiling ] 

Ancelotti won scudetti as a player with Roma (1) and AC Milan (2), once more as a manager for the latter. He also led Milan to two Champions League crowns, winning the tournament with Real Madrid as well, while bringing league titles to Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, and Bayern Munich.

Napoli has finished Top 3 in six of eight seasons, finishing four points behind Juve this season. Juventus has won the last seven scudetti, and Napoli’s only title came in 1987.

The club announced the move after owner Aurelio De Laurentiis let go of Sarri, thanking the previous manager for three seasons of work which included a Serie A Coach of the Year Award and wins in 97 of 147 matches.

“I’d like to thank Maurizio Sarri for his valuable contribution to the Napoli cause. He brought joy and prestige to Naples and Napoli fans all over the world with an entertaining brand of football that drew praise from all quarters. Well done, Maurizio.”