Drilling down on: at D.C. United 4, New York 1

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Man of the Match: Chris Pontius just keeps looking better and better, recovering ever more of the touch and confidence after returning from last year’s tibia break. Sunday’s hat trick for the United forward comes as a deserving reward. His first goal was a thing of beauty, a rocket past ‘keeper Ryan Meara while holding off a physical challenge from behind. Goal of the Week stuff? Probably. But that one surely will be challenged by Pontius’ slaloming third goal, another dandy. His second? Just more of the bustling industry that Pontius brings, finding the right spot near goal to hammer home from way in close.

Packaged for take-away:

  • Things were mighty wet Sunday at RFK, as rain fell steadily throughout. And speaking of all wet …
  • The Red Bulls’ defense could hardly have been any worse. Let’s try to run this down:
  • Thierry Henry, for his scoring exploits, isn’t perfect. He was responsible for the midfield give-away that led to D.C.’s first goal.
  • There was so much defensive wretchedness on D.C.’s second goal that it’s hard to assign individual blame. That said, heavy credit goes Maicon Santos’ way for lots of bull-headed determination in finally pulling free to produce the easiest of point blank blasts for Pontius.
  • New midfield starter Victor Palsson (inserted in  place of the suspended Rafa Marquez) managed to kick the ball off himself, somehow, and then watched it squirt right to Dwayne De Rosario. Young Red Bulls left back Conor Lade simply wasn’t strong enough to deal with De Rosario’s challenge, and when United’s talisman found skillful rookie Nick DeLeon with a smooth ball back into a great spot, that was that. The ball watching going on as “De Ro” found DeLeon was astonishing; all four members of New York’s back line were preoccupied with De Rosario, leaving the rookie with an unchallenged shot from about 15 yards. Oh, and the shot deflected off Markus Holgersson, whose body shape wasn’t right.
  • Pontius’ made Holgersoon look bad on the third goal, which gave his team a 4-0 lead. Hogersson was rooted into the ground as Pontius sped past him and finished calmly.
  • The RFK supporters’ 12th minute tribute to Chico Solares is a very cool thing.
  • The hunt for De Rosario’s best spot just goes on and on. He was back in the midfield Sunday as two of United’s DPs took a place on the bench.
  • The Red Bulls weren’t totally without chances early, mostly on moments produced by Henry. But this was a game where one side seized its chances with a brutal effectiveness.
  • How Joel Lindpere has fallen in the staff’s eyes. Convincing arguments could be made that New York’s Estonian international has been the most important figure around Red Bull Arena over the last couple of seasons. Sunday, Medhi Ballouchy and Victor Palsson were both preferred over Lindpere in the starting lineup.
  • You could say Ben Olsen got the tactics right, as his diamond midfield kept New York, with two center-mids lined up side by side, from generating much push through the middle third against. Or, maybe it was just the Ballouchy was highly ineffective on the left while Richards was only a little bit better on the right. Richards, with no goals and just one assist, eight matches has generally brought a big bag of nothing to the park in 2012.
  • Everyone in United’s midfield can feel good about their night at RFK. DeLeon on the left and Danny Cruz on the right were busy and constructive all night.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday