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: Spurs, Inter close to deal for Eriksen

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After months of posturing and working the back channels, it would appear that Christian Eriksen is close to getting his transfer away from Tottenham Hotspur.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

After months of posturing and holding firm, it would appear that Tottenham are close to getting their desired transfer fee for Eriksen despite his contract having only six months remaining.

After months of posturing and unsettling the 27-year-old star, it would appear that Inter Milan are close to getting their Danish international playmaker.

In the end, it would appear that everyone is going to get what they want, only no one truly gets what they want. Spurs spent the last year trying to sign Eriksen to a new contract; Eriksen wanted to leave in the summer and will feel like they wasted six months of his career; much like Inter would have been desperate to bolster their squad in the summer.

[ MORE: Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong ]

$22 million — the amount Spurs will reportedly receive from Inter — will hardly be enough to replace such an influential player, therefore Spurs come out of this long-running saga the worst of the bunch.

As for Eriksen and Inter, it’ll be a challenge for the player to immediately find his footing and shine ever so brightly in the midst of a title race, especially after the side has already slumped to back-to-back draws and fallen four points back of Juventus. Though, reportedly tripling his wages from Spurs to Inter leaves Eriksen the biggest winner in a mostly no-win situation.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.