MLS Season Preview: Houston Dynamo

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Off of two straight MLS Cup appearances, Houston entered the 2013 season as one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference, but after injuries, absences, and a midseason scoring drought pushed them into another four-five game, Dominic Kinnear’s team succumbed one-step short of third-straight final. Though they saw Montréal and the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls out of the playoffs, the Dynamo was unable to continue their mastery of Sporting Kansas City, falling to the eventual MLS champions in the conference finals.

While that slight regression would suggest a wane, Houston’s core remains strong, with only veteran center back Bobby Boswell having departed from the starting lineup that was in place at the end of 2013. While that team was only good enough to finish fourth in the East, it did so while Davis seemed constantly away with the U.S. national team, Boniek Garcia was hampered by injuries and commitments to Honduras, and Will Bruin only found goal twice in a 15-game span in the middle of the season.

Add in Boswell’s regression (playing a significant level below his 2012 performance), and Houston never found top gear in 2013.  When New England visits BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday, however, the Dynamo have a chance to reclaim last March’s promise. While Boswell, Adam Moffat, and Calen Carr (who missed the entire 2013 season) may be gone from the team that lost to the LA Galaxy in 2012’s MLS Cup,  the Dynamo has a series of options that will help the team threaten for another conference title.

Players in: Tony Cascio (loan, Colorado), A.J. Cochran (draft), David Horst (trade, Portland), Michael Lisch (draft), Mark Sherrod (draft)

Players out: Bobby Boswell (selected by D.C. United in re-entry), Calen Carr (out of contract), Brian Ching (retired), Alex Dixon (released), Erich Marscheider, Cam Weaver (option declined)

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Key player: “Eric Horst” (the forced combination or Eric Brunner and David Horst)

Central defense is Houston’s biggest weakness. If Will Bruin returns to his 2012, 16-goal self, it will be the team’s only weakness, with the departure of Boswell leaving Jamaican international Jermaine Taylor to anchor the back line with either David Horst or Eric Brunner. Two Portland Timber cast-offs trying to find new life in Houston? It’s not exactly a formula that’s going to produce the next Matt Besler and Aurélien Collin.

Horst had a strong season for Portland in 2012, while Brunner is two years removed from his last full-time role, yet Kinnear’s gamble on the duo to produce a starter isn’t the biggest issue in defender. Whomever ends up playing along side the incumbent Taylor will be part of a pair that lacks foot speed; one that will be overly reliant on Ricardo Clark and Warren Creavalle for protection. While that midfield duo’s capable of shielding a problematic defense, the need to do so could limit Kinnear’s want to make Clark a force higher up the field.

Brad Davis (pictured) will contend for a spot on the All-Star team, and if he plays to his potential, Boniek Garcia can be the best wide midfielder in the league. But if the central defense doesn’t come together, Houston is unlikely to transcend last year’s fourth place finish. Whether it’s David Horst, Eric Brunner, or “Eric Horst,” Houston needs one of their ex-Timbers to exceed expectations for the Dynamo to meet theirs.

Manager: Kinnear is one of the elite coaches in Major League Soccer. For some, he’s the first name that comes up after Bruce Arena when talking about the league’s best – somebody who should garner U.S. Men’s National Team consideration when Jurgen Klinsmann moves on. Though not every player succeeds under Kinnear, many who have struggled elsewhere do, with the Dynamo boss having almost completely rebuilt the team that won back-to-back titles upon its move from San Jose. Only Davis, Clark, Corey Ashe and Mike Chabala remain from the 2007 champions (and only Davis and Ashe have have had non-stop runs with the team).

Outlook: Sporting Kansas City will be favored to take the East, with plenty bound to put New York and Toronto among the favorites to unseat the MLS champions. Houston, while flawed, should be in that conversation. As their 2011 and 2012 playoff runs showed, the Dynamo’s capable of producing results that exceed its talent. If Kinnear has a team that can get him to November — and with Davis, Garcia, Clark and Bruin, he does — Houston has a chance to play on the season’s final day.

Cole returns to Chelsea as youth team coach

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One of Chelsea’s best players in club history is back at his old stomping grounds in a new role.

Chelsea finally confirmed over their social media channels that former left back Ashley Cole is back at the club coaching in the academy, helping the next generation of stars grow and learn the games. Specifically, Cole is coaching the U-15 squad.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines]

“I’m also doing my badges at the moment and so being here at Chelsea means I have the chance to coach every day, whereas maybe if I wasn’t working at a club it would be hard for me to get the hours in,” Cole told Chelsea’s website. “I’m learning not just how to be a coach and how to speak to people in a different environment but the side of coaching that you don’t see like planning the sessions and setting up the equipment.

“As a player, you just turn up for a session and do it. If it’s a possession drill, you just arrive and try to keep the ball but now I’m getting to understand that there are always ideas behind a particular session or practice. Organization has to be key and those are the little details that it takes to be a great coach.”

While plenty from Cole’s era have moved into the media for lucrative punditry roles, it’s nice to see players like Cole and his former teammate Frank Lampard, now Chelsea coach, go into coaching to help pass on some of the great lessons they’ve learned during their careers. .

Cole said in the interview that he wasn’t sure what was next after playing three seasons for the LA Galaxy and then joining Lampard at Derby County for the second half of last season. He added that he got his first taste of coaching kids while with the Galaxy, helping some of the academy players and taking part in video sessions.

“The Academy are very good at giving ex-players a route back to the club and a chance to learn as coaches,” Cole said. “They’re eager to bring in people who understand what it means to be at Chelsea and what it means to wear the badge. You have to be a top player to play for Chelsea so they want those top ex-players influencing and trying to help the next generation develop and be better players.”

MLS Playoffs Preview: 1st round kicks off on Saturday

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After a two-week break, MLS is back, and with some outstanding matchups as the first round of the playoffs kicks off on Saturday.

Here’s a closer look at Saturday’s matchups in the Western Conference and Eastern Conference.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]


2. Atlanta United v. 7. New England Revolution — Saturday, 1 p.m. ET

Atlanta United begins its title defense against the most successful coach in MLS history, Bruce Arena.

Atlanta United heads into the match at home a bit shorthanded. Miles Robinson suffered a left hamstring strain while on international duty with the U.S. Men’s National Team, leaving veteran centerback Michael Parkhurst to start alongside Leandro Gonzalez Pires. There’s also some questions over whether Ezequiel Barco and Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez will start together in midfield.

All that being said, Atlanta is still one of the best teams in MLS and as long as they have Josef Martinez, they’ll be a threat to make a deep run in the playoffs. The Revs have been a revelation since Bruce Arena took over in May, and no one knows the MLS playoffs more than he. Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou have been terrific this summer for the Revs while the defense, anchored by centerbacks Andrew Farrell and Michael Mancienne and 25-year-old goalkeeper Matt Turner have kept opponents off the board.

Atlanta certainly has the edge here, especially at home, but never count out a Bruce Arena team.

2. Seattle Sounders v. 7. FC Dallas — Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

Unlike in previous years, the Seattle Sounders never needed to make a patented late-season push to make it into the playoffs. This time, the Sounders were solid throughout, especially thanks to a start that included five wins in six games. With Jordan Morris in peak form and Roman Torres and Kim Kee-Hee patrolling the middle of the backline, Seattle sure looks like an MLS Cup contender. Of course, they’d have to get past LAFC first, no small task.

For FC Dallas, in a way, they’re just happy to be here. It seems like forever, but was less than a year ago when club legend Oscar Pareja left for the Club Tijuana manager spot. In his place was local soccer legend and former FC Dallas academy director Luchi Gonzalez, and with a mostly young squad of players, Gonzalez has proven he could guide them to the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt though that one of the few veterans, Zdenek “Cobra” Ondrášek, has been on fire the last two months and just scored for the Czech Republic against England. The Sounders should take care of business at home, but Jesus Ferreira and Paxton Pomykal can create something out of nothing and could make Saturday’s match interesting/

4. Toronto FC v. 5. DC United — Saturday, 6 p.m. ET

With the regular season concluded and the start of single-elimination matches, we’re on the verge of saying goodbye to Wayne Rooney at any moment, and it could come as early as Saturday.

Thanks to a win and some other favorable results, Toronto FC jumped up in the standings and earned a home playoff match. It doesn’t hurt that it’s been very solid to close out the season, going unbeaten in its last 10 matches – though to be fair, that span only included four wins. Worryingly for TFC is that striker Jozy Altidore didn’t practice on Thursday after missing the international break with yet another muscle injury. However, his Canadian international teammates Jonathan Osorio, Liam Fraser, and Richie Laryea are returning to the club side on a high after beating the U.S.

For D.C. it’s been an up and down last few weeks. They picked up huge wins over Portland and Seattle in the final two months of the season, only to settle for scoreless draws against the porous New York Red Bulls and abject horror show in FC Cincinnati. As always, there will be plenty of pressure on Rooney to produce some magic, and his side will need it if they want to keep their season alive. Toronto, playing at home, has the edge here.

3. Real Salt Lake v. 6. Portland Timbers — Saturday, 10 p.m. ET

Mike Petke was fired by Real Salt Lake in mid-August after serving a two-week suspension for berating the referee – and saying some unacceptable terms – after a Leagues Cup game in July. In his place, interim coach Freddy Juarez has done quite well with the squad, winning seven games in the final three months of the season to cruise into a top-three place and earn a home game in the playoffs.

Former Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers defender Nedum Onuoha has been a rock at the back alongside youngster Justin Glad, and RSL may have the most underrated attack in the league. Albert Rusnak, Damir Kreilach and Jefferson Savarino have all been brilliant at points this season. If the trio put it together, RSL could be a dark horse for the title.

The Timbers beat expectations a year ago as Giovanni Savarese led his team to another final – his fourth straight final as a coach. It will be an incredible achievement if they make it this time around. Portland has elite offensive capabilities when everyone is firing on all cylanders. Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri, and even Dairon Asprilla can create moments of magic, while Jeremy Ebobisse has had a breakout season with 11 goals, though he’s missed a few he’ll want back. The issue is the team defensively, and they’ll have to be on their game to slow to RSL’s front three on the road.

Of course, the Timbers did win both matchups against RSL this season, so even on the road, they should be confident they can get it done again.

Spanish FA once again opposes La Liga match in U.S.

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For the second consecutive season, La Liga and Relevant Sports have proposed a league match to take place this winter in the U.S.

And once again, the La Liga proposal doesn’t have the support of its national soccer federation.

[READ: La Liga wants to move Villarreal-Atletico Madrid to Miami]

Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), told reporters on Thursday that it would oppose the match taking place outside of Spain’s borders, keeping a consistent line in the sand on how far globalization can go in soccer.

“It would disrupt the competition,” Rubiales said, via AS. “To play a game in Miami, La Liga needs permission from five bodies that it doesn’t have.”

The five bodies Rubiales referred to are the RFEF, FIFA, CONCACAF, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Last time around, Relevant Sports and La Liga announced a long-term, lucrative marketing contract to expand the brand’s footprint in the Americas, and soon after, petitioned to move Girona’s home game against Barcelona to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the home stadium of Relevant Sports owner Stephen Ross and his Miami Dolphins.

Ultimately, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Relevant Sports were unable to get permission from the RFEF or FIFA to hold the event outside Spain and it went off as expected in Girona. At the time, Spain’s player’s union and fans groups opposed the move. Tebas has filed a lawsuit in Spain to try to force the RFEF to approve their request, but it seems unlikely to be awarded and it surely doesn’t provide any good will between the two parties.

There’s been plenty of talk about bringing league games abroad before, but it has just been talk so far. The Premier League considered adding an extra game to the season to be played all over the world, but never went through with creating plans for matches.

Associations – not leagues, to be clear – have brought things like Super Cups abroad. For example, the RFEF moved the 2018 Spanish Super Cup to Tangiers, Morocco, while the France Football Federation has brought its national Super Cup match to both the U.S. and Montreal, Canada in recent years. However, the argument in favor of bringing those games abroad is they’re basically meaningless. Meanwhile, one result in a league season could – in theory – determine whether a team is relegated or not, especially if the margin is three points or less.

We could see another legal fight on our hands, so watch this space, there’s plenty more to come.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.