MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at Sporting Kansas City, a place in MLS Cup at stake

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  • 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and Univision Deportes
  • Kickoff temperatures will be in the 20s
  • The first leg of this aggregate goals series finished in a 0-0 draw
  • Saturday’s survivor earns a spot in MLS Cup 2013; Kansas City would host the league championship it advances
  • Houston has eliminated Sporting KC from the last two playoffs

(Originally posted Friday afternoon)

If it seems like we’ve been here before – Houston visiting Sporting Kansas City in a huge, tense MLS playoff encounter – it’s because we have. Players and coaches from Houston will be drawing on the fond memories, in fact of recent, previous post-season face-offs between these two.

Sporting Kansas City types … not so much.

It’s hard to escape the history factor in this series, so fresh of memory and so meaningful. This is where Sporting KC’s seasons died in 2011 and 2012, in high-stakes matches at Sporting Park on the Midwest city’s outskirts.

It’s all on the line once again on Saturday as Houston visits Kansas City in the second leg of the teams’ aggregate goals Eastern Conference final series. The first leg finished 0-0, which makes it “Advantage KC” for the back half of this one. (If does if you can avoid considering all that recent history, that is, a backdrop that makes things lean a bit more Houston’s way.)

A spot in MLS Cup 2011 was on the line two years ago when the teams met at what was then called Livestrong Sporting Park. Houston’s Andre Hainault and Carlo Costly (neither of whom remain with the club) scored in a game also remembered for an injury to Brad Davis, which took the Dynamo’s best attacker out of the subsequent league final. But Houston advanced that day to meet the L.A. Galaxy, leaving Kansas City and its relentless, pressing ways to wonder about what had gone wrong in a 2-0 loss at home.

(MORE: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of tonight’s match)

A year later, the teams met again in the same park, this time in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a two-leg aggregate set, just like this year’s. Kansas City needed a two-goal win to even the series that night; the Dynamo had prevailed by a 2-0 margin in the opening leg. This one looked quite different, with Kansas City completely dominating (a 20-3 advantage in shots provides a fair, accurate snapshot) but doing no better than a 1-0 win. That left Kansas City eliminated (2-1 on aggregate) and put Houston on a path to a second consecutive MLS Cup appearance.

Kansas City has the look of a team that could play for the championship, a tough-minded, tactically wise bunch that also happens to be the league’s top defensive side. In fact, those loses convinced KC manager Peter Vermes to re-think his team’s commitment to all-out, high-pressure soccer. Now his teams play with just a little more possession and press high more selectively.

Still, at some point those sharp edges of recent history surely must work on some minds around the Kansas City locker room. “The great thing for us,” Vermes said late this week, “is that we don’t have a deficit to overcome, which was the case a year ago.”

(MORE: Notes on the Houston Dynamo ahead of tonight’s match)

The weather will have a fall playoff feel; high tomorrow in Kansas City is expected to be in the low 30s, with temperatures by game time falling perhaps into the upper 20s. The night should be dry, at least.

The other oddity about this one is the big break involved. Both teams had been quite busy in the run-up to the uneventful 0-0 draw in Houston – but there has been almost two full weeks since that one. So the teams will be better rested, at least. Both were cautious or tired or both to open the series, and the result was a contest where the teams evenly divided a total of just six shots on target. It was hardly an advertisement for open, attractive, flowing soccer.

With plenty of time to restore the legs and lungs, not to mention the cold temperatures that will help players stay on the move, Saturday’s match inside a sold out building should have more energy about it. It will, that is, unless the break makes things weird.

“There’s been a lot of time to think about this one,” Vermes said. “We want to play! It’s not easy to navigate the two weeks leading up to this game, keeping the guys sharp.”

The contest certainly has enough star power, with Kansas City center back Matt Besler and playmaker Graham Zusi set to lead the home team. Both were excused from U.S. national team duty over the past week and a half to ensure readiness for this one.

Injuries (well, one in particular) will be a huge influence in how this one plays out; Dynamo do-all midfielder Ricardo Clark remains questionable. This side of U.S. midfielder Brad Davis or perhaps goalkeeper Tally Hall, there is no more important Houston figure.

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.”