ON THE PITCH

Soccer Recap: Barça win Copa del Rey, Serie A title race heats up, Wenger to step down

Houston Culés, the official supporters group of FC Barcelona in the Bayou City, celebrated their teams Copa del Rey win at their watch party at Richmond Arms. Courtesy photo

Despite the European schedule winding down, there is plenty happening in the football - or “soccer" - world. On this side of the pond, a new winner of the Concacaf Champions League will be decided on Wednesday while the playoff race comes to a close in Mexico. By the way, the 2018 FIFA World Cup is only 51 days away.

Premier League

Fourteen clubs took part in league action this weekend as top teams continue to fight for the coveted UEFA Champions League spots and bottom table clubs look to fight off relegation to the Championship.

The biggest shock came off the field on Friday as Arsenal released a statement revealing that Manager Arsene Wenger would be stepping down after 22 years with the London club. Immediately, personalities around the soccer world (including the Dynamo's Philippe Senderos who played at Arsenal during the 2000s) filled Twitter with their well wishes and messages of gratitude. On Sunday, the team responded with a dominant 4-1 win over crosstown rivals West Ham United.

Liverpool drew 2-2 at West Brom as Mohamed Salah scored his 31st league goal this season - tying Alan Shearer,  Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez as the only players to hit the mark in a 38-match season. Salah was also awarded the Player's Player of the Year Award this weekend. Man City boss Pep Guardiola disagreed with that result and stated City’s Kevin De Bruyne should've been the winner. By the way, City demolished Swansea in a 5-0 win. Everton picked up a 1-0 win over Newcastle on Monday

Four Premier League clubs took part in the FA Cup semifinals. Manchester United came back to flip the score against Tottenham - who have been playing their home matches at Wembley, the stage of the semifinals - and advanced with a 2-1 win. Mourinho’s Men will face “The Special One’s" former club as Chelsea also advanced thanks to a 2-0 win over Southampton.

Top 5: Manchester City* (90), Manchester United (74), Liverpool (71), Tottenham (68), Chelsea (63)

La Liga

Not featuring in league play this weekend, FC Barcelona and Sevilla faced off in Madrid to decide the Spanish Cup champion. Barça demolished fellow Champions League quarterfinalist Sevilla with a 5-0 win. The victory featured a special moment as club legend Andres Iniesta scored and lifted his final trophy with the club ahead of his departure this coming offseason.

The league title is also one match away from being clinched, as without playing in a league match, Barcelona benefited from Atletico Madrid’s scoreless draw with Betis. The Catalans can clinch their 25th league trophy with a draw next week.

Top 5: FC Barcelona (83), Atletico Madrid (72), Real Madrid (68), Valencia (66), Real Betis (56)

Bundesliga

FC Bayern Munich continues to demolish opponents despite having already secured the league title. A 3-0 win over at Hannover 96 kept the Bavarians sharp ahead of their upcoming Champions League semifinal meeting with Real Madrid. Dortmund also enjoyed a big win, 4-0 over Bayer Leverkusen. Leipzig was upset at home in a 2-5 loss to Hoffenheim while Cologne and Schalke played to a thrilling 2-2 draw.

Top 5: FC Bayern Munich* (78), Schalke 04 (56), Dortmund (54), Bayer Leverkusen (51), Hoffenheim (49)

Serie A

Last week, Juventus looked solid at the top of the table. This week, they're sweating the league title as Napoli has lowered the gap to one point. This was made possible by the head-to-head encounter between the top two sides that ended with a 90th minute goal by Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly. Roma, who play at Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday, picked up a 3-0 win at SPAL while Lazio kept pace with a 4-0 win over Sampdoria. Inter also picked up three points to stay in fifth while A.C. Milan lost at home to Benevento to stay at seventh.

Top 5: Juventus (85), Napoli (84), Roma (67), Lazio (67), Inter Milan (66)

Ligue 1

Already champion PSG picked up another three points while giving reserves minutes in a 1-0 win at Bordeaux. Last year's champions Monaco lost 3-1 at Guingamp, one week after surrendering the league at PSG in a humiliating 7-1 affair. Lyon and Marseille both scored five goals as they picked up big wins. Lille and Metz continue to stare at relegation.

Top 5: Paris Saint-Germain* (90), Monaco (70), Lyon (69), Marseille (69), Nice (50)

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Concacaf Champions League

Toronto FC are staring down the barrel with everything they've worked for on the line. To win would be to make history and become the first MLS team to play in the FIFA Club World Club. To lose would mean “close, but no cigar,” having sacrificed their early stretch of the MLS season for this trophy.

Chivas, on their end, are looking to salvage their season with a continental title. Rightfully so, they qualified to this Champions League by being winners of Liga MX in the Clausura 2017 season but their mediocre form the last couple of seasons have left much to be desired from one of Mexico’s soccer giants. On top of that, the second leg will be at their place and their entire squad built of Mexican citizens - a nationalistic approach that forms part of their brand - carry the pressure of not wanting to lose to an MLS team. To choke the 2-1 lead earned on a snowy Toronto night would be an embarrassment for this proud club.

The winner will be decided on Wednesday night and SportsMap will be present at the final. Additionally, you can hear an exclusive interview with Toronto FC (also Toronto Argonauts) President Bill Manning on the April 16 episode of Soccer Matters over at PodcastArena.com.

Major League Soccer

New York City looked unbeatable but a West Coast trip to Portland proved to be their undoing. The Timbers dropped City with a 3-0 win and their second at home this season. Portland's rival, the Seattle Sounders, also got right with a 3-1 win over Minnesota. Atlanta, meanwhile, survived a trip West with a 2-0 dominant win at the LA Galaxy where they held Zlatan Ibrahimovic in check for the entire game. LAFC continues to impress early, winning a 5-3 thriller in a long trip East to Montreal. LA will debut their new stadium next week. Sporting KC delivered the week 8 jaw-dropping result with a 6-0 thumping of Vancouver.

In Houston, the Dynamo redeemed themselves with a 5-1 win vs. Toronto FC. No, this wasn't the best presentation of the MLS Cup Champion as all of the starters where already in Guadalajara focusing on game two of the Concacaf Champions League final. Yes, however, this was the a result the club needed to boost confidence, break a slump and maybe start getting on a roll. Romell Quioto had arguably his best game for the club, playing a part in all five goals. The Dynamo train in Houston until Friday before flying up to Minneapolis to face Minnesota United on Saturday night.

East Top 6: NYCFC (17), Atlanta United (16), Orlando City (13), New England Revolution (11), Columbus Crew SC (11), NY Red Bulls (9)

West Top 6: Sporting KC (17), LAFC (12), FC Dallas (12), LA Galaxy (10), Real Salt Lake (10), Vancouver Whitecaps FC (10)

Liga MX

It's pressure time in Liga MX as only one matchday remains. Clubs at the top want to assure a higher seed in the playoffs, teams on the bubble want a chance to play for the trophy. Puebla shocked Club America with a 3-1 win, Toluca stayed top of the table with a 3-0 win over Veracruz and second place Santos lost 2-1 at home to Pumas. Monterrey picked up a 4-0 win over Lobos BUAP, Cruz Azul a 2-1 win over Monarcas while Tigres and Necaxa tied in a battle of the defending Liga MX and Copa MX champions.

Some will wonder if Saturday's matches will happen after the newly formed Players Union threatened to strike on this date a few weeks ago due to concerns around players rights. The Mexican Association of Footballers - the official name of this organization - met with team owners in the past days but reports indicate there was no agreement that came from the meeting.

Top 5: Toluca (36), Santos Laguna (29), Monterrey (28), Tigres UANL (27), Club America (26)

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National Women’s Soccer League

Undefeated in league play and top of the league in goals, North Carolina Courage picked up a draw and a win to stay at the top of the NWSL standings. The Chicago Red Stars built on their win last week at Utah by picking up four more points this week while Portland and Seattle follow behind in the table.

The Houston Dash continue to look for their first win - both of the season and under their first year coach Vera Pauw - after losing both matches of their two-game road trip. Houston lost 3-0 at the Red Stars in a match where they conceded an own goal in the 7th minute followed by another goal in the 11th on a rainy Wednesday night in Chicago. They would lose by the narrowest of margins in a 1-0 meeting at Orlando Pride on Sunday. The biggest positive was the return of forward Kealia Ohai, back on the pitch against Orlando after being sidelined with an ACL injury midway through last season. The Dash face a tough test Saturday vs. NC Courage.

Top 4: North Carolina Courage (13), Chicago Red Stars (8),  Portland Thorns (7), Seattle Reign (6)

Upcoming matches (All Times CT):

Tuesday, Apr. 24:

1:45 p.m. - [UEFA Champions League] Liverpool vs. Roma (FS1/ESPN Deportes)

Wednesday, Apr. 25:

1:45 p.m. - [UEFA Champions League] Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid (FS1/ESPN Deportes)

8:30 p.m. - [Concacaf Champions League] Chivas Guadalajara vs. Toronto FC (go90 app & go90.com /Univision Deportes)

Thursday, Apr. 26:

2:05 p.m. - [UEFA Europa League] Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid (FS1/ESPN Deportes)

2:05 p.m. - [UEFA Europa League] Marseille vs. Salzburg (FS2)

Friday, Apr. 27:

1:30 p.m. - [Bundesliga] Hoffenheim vs. Hannover 96 (FS2)

Saturday, Apr. 28:

6:30 a.m. - [Premier League] Liverpool vs. Stoke City (NBC Sports)

8:30 a.m. - [Bundesliga] Bayern Munich vs. Eintracht Frankfurt (FS2)

11:30 a.m. - [Premier League] Swansea vs. Chelsea (NBC Sports)

11:30 a.m. - [La Liga] Real Madrid vs. Leganes (beIN Sports)

2:30 p.m. - [MLS] Philadelphia Union vs. D.C. United (Twitter/Univision Deportes)

2:30 p.m. - [NWSL] Houston Dash vs. North Carolina Courage (Lifetime)

7 p.m. - [MLS] Minnesota United vs. Houston Dynamo  (KUBE 57 in Houston / ESPN+ in other markets)

Sunday, Apr. 29:

8:15 a.m. - [Premier League] West Ham vs. Manchester City (NBC Sports)

10:30 a.m. - [Premier League] Manchester United vs. Arsenal (NBC Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [La Liga] Deportivo vs. Barcelona (beIN Sports)

3 p.m. - [MLS] Colorado Rapids vs. Orlando City SC (ESPN)

8 p.m. - [MLS] LAFC vs. Seattle Sounders FC (FS1)

Monday, Apr. 30:

2 p.m. - [Premier League] Spurs vs. Watford (NBC Sports)

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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