MLS Playoff Preview: Sporting Kansas City meets Houston in first leg of MLS conference final

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  • Houston has eliminated Sporting KC from the last two MLS playoffs
  • Kansas City pulled four of a possible six points from two matches at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium this year
  • Both teams are playing on very short rest, having claimed their Eastern semifinal series victories on Wednesday
  • Game time Saturday is 2:30 ET on NBC
  • It can also be seen on NBC Sports Live Extra

In terms of creating a psychological edge, this one is hard to sort out.

The remaining Eastern Conference survivors are quite familiar, especially when it comes to playoff smash-ups. Sporting Kansas City meets the Houston Dynamo on Saturday in the first leg of this home-and-away series. Houston has eliminated Houston both of the last two years en route to MLS Cup appearances (both of which the Dynamo lost to Los Angeles.)

So it’s clearly advantage Houston, right? The Dynamo, looking once again like a team of destiny in general, has this team’s number and all that, right?

Not so fast. Sporting Kansas City has a reason to be confident – or at very least has enough reason not to fear another trip into South Texas. That’s because Houston took four of a possible six points out of BBVA this year, a win and a tie in the teams’ two meetings at the orange-washed downtown ground.

In fact, Sporting Kansas City had the “honor” of being the very first team to beat Houston at BBVA. Back in May, SKC defender Aurelien Collin supplied the 73rd-minute game-winner as his team cut down Houston’s record home unbeaten streak at 36 games in all competitions. Sporting was the first team to win in Houston in almost two years, in fact, going back to June of 2011 (the last year Houston played at Robertson Stadium on the University of Houston campus).

(MORE: Sporting Kansas City notes)

“It’s obviously great from a perspective of the regular season, we’re trying to get points and chase Supporters Shield.” Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes said Friday.

“But at the same time, it really doesn’t mean anything at this point of the season. It’s a new series. … As much as those were good results, they really don’t do anything for us at the moment other than give us, at least, some idea that teams can come here and get results.”

But that seems like an awful lot, that belief that good things certainly can happen against Dominic Kinnear’s playoff masters, especially at BBVA Compass Stadium. Houston was 9-4-4 there in 2013.

One of the Dynamo draws was also to Peter Vermes’ club, a scoreless result in October at BBVA.

The teams started a conference semifinal series there last year. Kinnear’s team won, 2-0, and that second goal was absolutely massive. Sporting KC absolutely dominated the return leg – but could not quite overturn the two-goal margin and had to watch Houston celebrate advancement in its building for the second consecutive year.

Both teams will have to work against fatigue Saturday. Houston has it worse, about to play its sixth match in 17 days.

SKC, driven by U.S. international Graham Zusi and backed by the league’s top defense, arrives into Houston having eliminated New England in the conference semifinals.

Vermes’ team required an additional 30-minute period to get past the Revolution. Kinnear’s men in orange, consummate playoff grinders, also needed 30 extra minutes in upsetting the heavily favored New York Red Bulls.

La Liga: Espanyol up to 2nd, Athletic held again

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The top of the La Liga table is quite something.

While Barcelona continues to lead the way, below them rests nearby Espanyol after the Periquitos defeated basement-dwellers Huesca 2-0 on Borja Iglesias’s third and fourth goals of the season. The Spaniard struck just before halftime to open the scoring, before hitting again just past the hour mark to seal the three points.

Real Valladolid jumped above Real Madrid into sixth with a 1-0 road victory at Real Betis. A 35th minute goal by 30-year-old journeyman Antonioto was enough to earn the win, as Betis popped off 20 total shots, but only four were on target. Takashi Inui had a great chance but whiffed right on the doorstep midway through the second half. With Sunday’s results, Real Madrid dropped all the way down to seventh.

Getafe topped Rayo Vallecano 2-1 to jump into the top half of the table. The eventual winner was a 67th minute own-goal by 20-year-old Sergio Akieme who would have been celebrated for a quality finish tapping home a cross, although it was into his own net.

Finally, first-half goals four minutes apart cancelled out as Athletic Bilbao and Eibar drew 1-1. The home side struck first at Ipurua Municipal Stadium as the referee went to VAR 17 minutes in and found that Inigo Martinez tackled Sergi Enrich in the box, a clear scythe after the Athletic defender anticipated incorrectly the incoming cross. 24-year-old Brazilian Charles completed the penalty with a slow run-up, putting the hosts in front. Four minutes later, the visitors struck back on a fabulous moment of anticipation by Raul Garcia who headed perfectly in front of a streaking Inaki Williams who got behind the defense and put the ball into the back of the net.

Timbers tops RSL to clinch playoffs, Galaxy now controls destiny

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The Western Conference playoff picture has become more clear after the Portland Timbers clinched a playoff spot by topping Real Salt Lake 3-0.

The victory not only secured a berth for Portland, but it also left RSL in a position of vulnerability. The LA Galaxy won at Minnesota 3-1 with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the scoresheet, pulling within a point of RSL, who is done for the regular season, meaning the Galaxy controls its own destiny.

Portland put together a comprehensive performance, disappointing from RSL’s perspective with the playoffs on the line. 15 minutes in, Diego Valeri chipped in a free-kick and defender Larrys Mabiala made a run at the back post for the tap-in. Portland defended well for the rest of the first half, and while the visitors dominated the first part of the second half, they conceded again past the hour mark through another unlikely culprit in Diego Chara. On the counter, Chara made a storming run down the middle, and after collecting a Sebastian Blanco pass, he touched past a charging Nick Rimando and finished cooly. The third came from Blanco with three minutes to go to put the cherry on top of a solid overall performance.

Los Angeles picked up a vital three points thanks to a ruthless attack. Ibrahimovic headed home a beautiful looping cross from Rolf Feltscher right on the half-hour mark, and the Galaxy went up for good.

In the second half, a ridiculous four-minute stretch saw three goals in succession. First, Ola Kamara was denied on the doorstep by Michael Boxall, but seconds later he poked in an Ashley Cole cross at the near post for LA’s second. The third came just one minute later as Minnesota turned it over in their own defensive third, and Ibrahimovic crossed to Roman Alessandrini for an absurd volleyed finish. Minnesota got a consolation just two minutes later through Angello Rodríguez, but it wasn’t enough.

So, the playoff picture is thus: Portland is in with 54 points. RSL is currently in the playoffs, but their regular season is finished with 49 points. The Galaxy, therefore, sit below the cut line on 48 points but have a meeting with Houston next weekend for all the marbles. They need to win to advance to the playoffs, as a draw would leave them with one fewer win, the first tiebreaker.

Supporters Shield still up for grabs as Atlanta, NYRB both win

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The New York Red Bulls are still in the mix, but Atlanta United has taken a one-point lead into the final matchday of the season as both teams won on Sunday.

Atlanta United topped Chicago 2-1 at Mercedes-Benz stadium. Franco Escobar opened it up early and an own-goal put them ahead for good, keeping pace with RBNY’s win over Philadelphia and leaving them a point ahead at the top of the table.

Escobar’s strike came just eight minutes in, after feeding Josef Martinez near the penalty spot who whiffed and fell down, he latched back onto the loose ball and decided to take it himself, curling one inside the far post. Chicago scored in the 24th minute to level the score, but Atlanta did not relent.

Just two minutes after Chicago’s equalizer, Atlanta was back on top. Chris McCann crossed it from the left edge, and Johan Kappelhof attempted to slide and block the cross at the near post, but instead he redirected the ball into the back of his own net.

New York, meanwhile, kept pace with a 1-0 victory at Philadelphia behind a penalty from Kaku, sending Andre Blake the wrong way. The spot-kick was given on a VAR check that determined Alejandro Bedoya handled the ball.

On the final day of the season, the Red Bulls will host Orlando City, while Atlanta is on the road at Toronto. Atlanta can secure the Supporters’ Shield with a win, but New York can jump them with a win and an Atlanta draw or loss. Should Atlanta lose by one goal and the Red Bulls draw, the teams would be level on points, wins, and goal differential, meaning the significant Atlanta lead on goals scored would give them the advantage.

Rooney scores brace, DC United completes improbable playoff push

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They’ve done it. They’ve really done it.

D.C. United, with just two league wins through the first 19 games of the MLS season, has completed an improbable playoff bid by securing an Eastern Conference berth in the postseason with a 3-1 win over NYCFC on the penultimate matchday of the season.

Wayne Rooney, the catalyst for this amazing turnaround, fittingly scored a brace, including the opener just eight minutes in on a fabulous run from Luciano Acosta down the end line.

Acosta was there to secure the win, doubling the lead in the 24th minute with a long-distance strike into the top-right corner.

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was required to preserve the lead, getting down low to stop a tight-angle strike from David Villa towards the end of the first half. That would spur D.C. on, as they would seal the deal with a penalty from Rooney in the 74th minute, leaving NYCFC with just a consolation in the 78th minute when David Villa ended the bid for a clean sheet.

The victory caps an improbable second-half run for D.C. United, as they have won five in a row and 10 of their last 15. Rooney has been the leader, earning the role of captain despite just signing this summer, and scoring 12 goals in 19 MLS matches. With Columbus Crew drawing, D.C. jumped all the way up into fourth place with the win.